[Relevant documents: e-petition 623572, Maintain sanctions and introduce visa ban on people linked to Iranian regime; and e-petition 623743, Cut diplomatic ties with Iran in support of current nationwide uprisings.]
I beg to move,
That this House condemns unreservedly the actions of the Government of Iran in suppressing protests in that country; deplores the violent behaviour of Iranian police in regard to those protests; is deeply concerned by reports of threats made to organisations in the UK which support the rights of protesters in Iran; urges His Majesty’s Government to include Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations; and calls upon His Majesty’s Government to work with international counterparts to ensure that further sanctions are placed on Iran without delay.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for raising the plight of two very brave female individuals who have been unfairly and unjustly imprisoned in Iran. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones.
The House will obviously be aware of the horrific situation in Iran. In September 2022, a young 22-year-old girl was brutally murdered—we should make it clear that she was murdered—by the authorities while in police custody. Her crime, such as it was described, was merely to wear her hijab in a manner that the regime deemed to be too loose.
After several urgent questions, which I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting, I am grateful to have this opportunity of a more extensive debate to urge the Government further to include Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations and to work with international counterparts to ensure that further sanctions are placed on Iran without delay.
According to Amnesty International, among the hundreds killed are at least 44 children who died after live ammunition was fired at their heads, hearts and other vital organs. That is unimaginable on many levels. I know the hon. Gentleman will share my deep concern about children being wounded or killed as a result of the political unrest. Does he agree that a UN fact-finding mission must be operationalised urgently?
The hon. Lady pre-empts what I will say later in my speech. I absolutely agree with what she says.
Mahsa Amini’s death has sparked a protest movement that remains extremely strong, five months after the event. It has ignited a voice of public anger and frustration, with the Iranian diaspora taking to the streets across the world to show their anger at the current regime, and at the IRGC in particular. The protests have been huge, and thousands of people from every walk of life, age and status have bravely taken to the streets. Women have been leading the protests against the unfair treatment meted out to them.
In reaction to the protests, the regime has arrested more than 30,000 people, despite nearly all of them being peaceful protesters, and they include men, women, students and children. The suppression of those who speak against the regime is undemocratic and, frankly, dangerous. It mimics the rise of the Nazis, and the country must act before it reaches such levels.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important and passionate speech, and I am grateful to him, as are many others, that we are able to debate the issue in the House today. I wholeheartedly support his comments about the need for Government support, but Members of Parliament in other countries are offering personal support by sponsoring those who have been imprisoned or face execution. Does he feel that MPs in this place could do something to show our individual support, to back up his calls?
Clearly, individuals in this Parliament can demonstrate their support by sponsoring a prisoner and a protester, and I urge colleagues to do that.
Let me continue before taking further interventions.
Those who are arrested are copiously tortured, beaten by the police, refused medication and denied legal representation, and they have minimal access to food and water. Bail is nearly always refused; on the few occasions it is offered, huge sums are demanded that families cannot meet.
Since the protests began, more than 750 protesters have been killed by the regime. As has been said, more than 70 of them were children. I have no doubt that the House will agree that this abomination cannot continue. I urge the Foreign Secretary and Ministers to act as soon as possible to proscribe this merciless regime.
Let me congratulate my hon. Friend on his leadership in this matter in the past few years and on his having obtained this debate.
On proscription—I am co-chair of the all-party group on Magnitsky sanctions—the United States and many other countries have already proscribed and sanctioned the republican guard in Iran, so why are the UK Government dragging their feet over what is clearly a required action, given that the republican guard is so heavily involved in the brutality and murder of people? Will my hon. Friend encourage the Government to move finally on this and do what they are supposed to?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Clearly, we have been constantly asking what else the IRGC must do before the Government proscribe it. There have been positive signs over the Christmas period, with Ministers suggesting that the Government may take the action we would like, and I hope we will get an announcement from the Minister in answer to this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and may I add my voice and those of my Liberal Democrat colleagues to the call for proscription, as that is way past due? The Minister would have support from all parts of the House if he chose to announce that at the Dispatch Box today, and we sincerely hope he does. I also thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for raising the issue of the diaspora, because this affects our communities as much as it affects people in Iran. One constituent contacted me to say that her aunt was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison and 74 lashes—that makes my skin crawl. Her cousin, who is male, was also arrested, just for travelling to the university to attend a protest; he did not even attend the protest. He was sentenced to five years in prison. There is more we can do, and not just proscription. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should consider a lifeboat scheme—I urge the Minister on this—particularly for brave Iranian women who have been leading these protests across the world? If they can get out, we should be offering sanctuary.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and I agree with her entirely on those aspects.
Let me make a bit more progress, as I know the Deputy Speaker will be chasing me about time shortly. I will take some more interventions in a moment.
On 15 November, reliable reports reached us that those in custody would now face potential execution. At the time, 15,000 people had been arrested and the IRGC announced that this mass murder would
“serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time”
in order to crush the protests.
That is incredibly unacceptable and requires further urgent intervention. An overwhelming majority of the 220 Iranian MPs voted in favour of that policy of using executions as punishment for protesters.
On this point of executions, I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to go down the route of proscription, but does he also agree that a debate such as this should recognise the appalling situation in which LGBT people find themselves in Iran? They are brutalised and tortured and, sadly, too many have been sentenced to death. It is important that we recognise the appalling treatment of that particular group in Iran, too.
Clearly, it is an absolute outrage that anyone should be punished for the way that they are—their sexuality or any other regard.
I am grateful for this debate. I wish to put on record my commitment to women, life and freedom. I condemn all human rights abuses, particularly of those protesting in Iran who are at threat of the death penalty right now. Today, in particular, I wish to plead for the clemency of Mr Akbari. Can the Minister, through this debate, say exactly what his Government are doing—if news of Mr Akbari’s death has not already reached us—to stop that death penalty going ahead? The family have been called in for a final visit. Time is short, and action is urgent right now.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Alireza Akbari, who is not just an Iranian, but a UK-Iranian dual national, is on death row. His family have been called in, as has been said, and he is under imminent threat of execution. That is completely unacceptable, particularly under the circumstances of being denied proper legal representation and a proper trial—it was a show trial in front of a court.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. This very point demonstrates that the Iranian regime does not comply with the rule of law in its own country. If it is prepared to act like that and ignore its own legislation, surely we have a much stronger hand in proscribing the IRGC in its entirety.
Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for that point.
I will, if I may, make a bit of progress. I will take some more interventions in a minute.
On 8 December, the first protester was officially executed. Mohsen Shekari, who was only 23, was executed on grounds of committing “enmity against God”. He faced trial in front of Iran’s revolutionary court and he was found guilty without any due process. An appeal was lodged, but subsequently rejected. At the trial, he could not choose his own lawyer, and visible harm had been inflicted on him, with wounds covering his face. Since his tragic death, his family have reported that the Iranian authorities continue to torture them by refusing to release the body and by providing false information on where the body is. This account is echoed by many other families who have had loved ones executed on similar grounds. Only four days later, on 12 December, another 23-year-old protester, Majidreza Rahnavard, was brutally hanged in public.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Member on securing this debate.
In joining others in applauding the courage of those protesting in Iran, standing up for freedom, justice and the right of women to dress as they wish, does the hon. Member agree that it is a sign of the threat that this brutal regime perceives that it is going to such lengths to murder people who have protested, to hold dual nationals hostage as a matter of state policy and to threaten journalists for simply wanting to do their job, which is to tell the world about what is going on in Iran at the moment?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, the whole House offers its admiration to the men and women demonstrating on the streets and bravely standing up to this undemocratic regime. It is quite clear that the regime is becoming more and more desperate, which displays weakness. The persistence of the protests surely means the regime is crumbling.
Unfortunately, the executions I have described are not isolated cases, with more and more cases being unearthed. On Saturday, Mohammad Mehdi Karami, a 21-year-old karate champion, and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, a volunteer children’s coach, were executed. Some 41 protesters have received notification of the death penalty and await their murder under this regime.
As has been said, the IRGC is threatening not only the Iranian people, but international communities including the UK. Journalists who have reported on the protests have been repeatedly threatened and found hostile Iranian surveillance teams outside their homes and offices in the UK. I commend British counter-terrorism police for alerting journalists of these potential attacks. One letter from the police to a London-based journalist warned that Iranian journalists working from the UK had been lured back to countries near Iran, then abducted by the Iranian Government and sentenced to death. It also warned that the Iranian Government have been seen to
“direct physical attacks against dissidents in Europe.”
Surely, when these attacks extend so significantly into the United Kingdom, it is time we acted to proscribe this organisation in its entirety.
I will just finish my point. Just last weekend, a journalist was arrested and remains detained in Iran.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I recently met a constituent who has had family members executed by the regime. She wanted me to make the point that this is not just an Iran issue—the erosion of human rights and women’s rights reverberates around the world. We have seen with the war in Ukraine what happens when the global community does not intervene quickly and firmly enough. I want to add my voice to that of the hon. Gentleman, and other Members present, in urging the Government to go further with sanctions and other methods to ensure we send the message that this is completely unacceptable and that we stand with all those protesting.
It is fair to say that the Government have not been inactive in this regard. On 11 November, the Foreign Secretary summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires to discuss the threats against journalists living in the UK. However, this has not deterred the Iranian security forces, so we must continue to put international pressure on the regime. It is crucial that we follow up the recent sanctions and lead our partners and allies to proscribe such an organisation.
I was pleased that, on 15 December, the UN General Assembly adopted the 69th UN resolution condemning violations of human rights in Iran.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has been present for a whole number of Foreign Office questions where, by the luck of the draw, I have been able to pose this question to the Foreign Secretary. The Government have continued not to proscribe the IRGC, as was the case with Hezbollah until finally they had to do so. Is it not now time to proscribe the IRGC, which destabilises the region through terrorist activities and front organisations, operates international gangsterism and is the absolute bedrock of support for this clerical fascist regime? Might the hon. Gentleman give way to the Minister, who could indicate the direction the Government are going in so that we do not have to rely on leaks in newspapers?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I will wait for the Minister to respond to the debate.
I am deeply concerned by reports of threats made to organisations in the UK that support the rights of protesters in Iran, including the recent petrol bombing in outer London of a location affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Thankfully, as it was the early hours of the morning, no one was inside, but the situation could have been extremely grave with loss of life.
The mass murders by the IRGC are shocking, but perhaps not surprising. In 1988, the current President of Iran, President Raisi, was responsible for the prosecution of 30,000 political prisoners, all of whom were executed. Of those 30,000, 90% were members or supporters of Iran’s main opposition movement, the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran. That indicates that the regime has no qualms whatsoever about executing people who represent a threat. It has made clear that that is what it intends to do. The 1988 massacre holds many similarities to today’s uprising, rooted as it was in a fundamental conflict with the people of Iran, who were demanding freedom, democracy, and economic and social development after the overthrow of the Shah.
The IRGC has created, funded and armed a vast network of middle eastern terrorist groups, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, all spreading war and violence around the region. Iran has supplied Hezbollah alone with some 150,000 missiles, which are regularly fired at innocent Israeli civilians. Hezbollah’s 2012 bomb attack in Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian, led the EU to list the organisation’s military wing as terrorists, while leaving the political arm of the organisation untouched. In creating that artificial distinction, which even Hezbollah rejected, the EU avoided banning the group in its entirety. It consequently continues to recruit and fundraise in EU member states and the UK, which has not yet banned the group separately.
Furthermore, the IRGC and Hezbollah are at the forefront of Iran’s brutal campaign to keep the Syrian Assad regime in power. Since 2015, when Russia joined the fighting, the two regimes have partnered in despicable war crimes that have killed hundreds of thousands and left millions as refugees of war. The growing alliance with Russia has been further strengthened with the current war in Ukraine, with Iran supplying advanced drones to Russia since August.
Iran’s people have risen to defeat religious tyranny and its repression and terrorism. They have chosen to pay the price of freedom with their blood. The UK and the whole international community should rise in solidarity by helping the Iranian people realise their democratic aspirations, which the UK Government can do by taking the following necessary steps.
The Government should demand that the Iranian regime immediately halt trials, convictions and executions of protesters in Iran. The UK Government lag behind their European counterparts, who are even sponsoring individual protesters who are in prison and at high risk of execution. We could follow that lead.
We should recognise the legitimacy of the fight of the Iranian people against the evil and terrorist forces of the IRGC and officially recognise the Iranian people’s revolution to establish a republic based on democratic values.
We should recognise that the people of Iran have a democratic alternative, the goals of which are enshrined in the 10-point plan articulated by Mrs Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the NCRI. The Government should support that Iranian solution, as was recommended by more than 230 Members from across the parties in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in our joint statement in December 2022.
The Government should refer the appalling dossier of the regime’s systematic violations of human rights and crimes against humanity to the United Nations Security Council for the adoption of binding deterrent measures. The regime leaders must be brought to justice to end impunity and prevent the cycle of crime and terror.
Next, we should proscribe the IRGC in its entirety to deny it the funds and resources it needs to crush the nationwide uprising and export terrorism abroad.
I will make an additional suggestion, if I may. Within 48 hours of every state murder of a protester, the west, our allies and the UK should impose specific sanctions, because otherwise there is no direct response to prevent each individual execution.
To go on for one more moment, there is much discussion on Twitter and the television about whether my hon. Friend is bleeding while giving this speech, which he is not. It would be helpful if he could clarify that he is in a fit state of health, because we in this House would never allow our good friend to go on bleeding while discussing such matters.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am going through a menu of points that I want the Government to follow, and she is absolutely right that I am not bleeding. I had an accident on Monday, and I am very grateful to the wonderful people in the national health service for assisting me at the time.
We must close the regime’s embassy and affiliated institutions, as well as expelling diplomats and agents of the regime in the UK who provide support for the violent repression of dissidents and activists in the UK. We must widen sanctions to target the political leadership that is responsible for the conduct of the regime—the supreme leader, the President, the IRGC and everyone within the governing structure—and encourage our allies to do the same.
We must stop any form of negotiation or concessions to the criminal rulers of Iran. In view of the death sentences against protesters detained during the current uprising, we must act immediately, together with international partners, to ensure that the international fact-finding mission created by the UN Human Rights Council visits the prisons in Iran and speaks with the detained protesters and political prisoners as soon as possible.
Jointly with our P3 allies, we must announce a definitive and permanent end to efforts to secure a nuclear deal. Iran’s nuclear activity is merely a symptom. We should be tackling the disease: the regime itself. It is not good enough simply to say, as the United States has done, that the deal is not the focus right now. Iran’s protesters want to see a harder line. Deterrence, rather than talks, is the appropriate posture.
I look forward to hearing many powerful and robust arguments made by my colleagues, but as I come to the end of my speech, I leave the House with one final thought. Iran is the country responsible for the second highest number of executions each year, behind only China. It is responsible for the greatest tally of female executions in any country. Whatever people’s views on capital punishment, it cannot be acceptable that that position persists.
It is high time we worked together to banish this unlawful regime, to protect innocent protesters and to champion free democratic rights across the world—something we often so easily take for granted. To oppose the Iranian regime is no longer a political calculation, but a simple humanitarian choice. I look forward in particular to the contribution and answers from my hon. Friend the Minister as the debate winds up.
We have all watched in horror for more than 100 days as the Iranian regime has used extreme violence to suppress its own people, particularly women and young people who are expressing legitimate grievances and seeking a better future. As the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) set out in his powerful opening remarks, Iranian women and girls have led nationwide protests following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest for allegedly failing to comply with Iran’s draconian compulsory veiling laws.
People in Nottingham have been deeply moved by the courage of the protesters and their rallying cry of “Woman, Life, Freedom”. There have been weekly protests in Nottingham city centre. I speak today on behalf of many constituents, including those of Iranian heritage, who are calling on me, on this Parliament and on the UK Government to stand with the protesters and support their demands for their fundamental freedom to live their lives as they choose.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members across the House stand in solidarity with those brave protesters who are challenging the abuses of the Iranian regime. I am proud that my Front-Bench colleagues have consistently called on the Government to bring forward new sanctions and to use all our diplomatic efforts to push for human rights to be upheld in Iran.
Another concern is the use of lethal force by Iranian authorities against oppressed ethnic minorities such as the Kurds. Does the hon. Member agree that the UK Government should use any diplomatic means available to apply pressure on Iran to ensure that minorities in the country do not face further discrimination in protest crackdowns?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady, who makes an important point about the way in which a number of human rights are being abused in Iran. I hope that the Minister will set out how the Government plan to hold the Iranian regime to account for its gross human rights violations, when they plan to follow the US and other countries in formally proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorist organisation, and what further targeted sanctions they will take against the Iranian regime, particularly the IRGC support bases on British soil.
The latest reports from human rights groups indicate that more than 19,000 people have been arrested since September last year, and more than 500 people have been killed, including at least 44 children, as the Iranian security forces have responded to the popular uprising with violence and the unwarranted use of lethal force on innocent protesters. That is intolerable. Amnesty International reports that it has documented crimes under international law and serious human rights violations, including not only unlawful killings but mass arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture and ill-treatment.
In recent weeks, the Iranian authorities have entered a new, even more appalling phase, and are now using the death penalty as a tool of political repression. Tragically, as we have heard, four young people have been executed following sham trials in connection with the protests. Amnesty has identified 25 individuals who are at serious risk of execution. According to the latest reports, two of those individuals have recently been moved to solitary confinement, raising fears that they face imminent execution. The UK must stand unequivocally against the death penalty, wherever it is used in the world, and I hope that the Minister will call on the Iranian authorities to quash all death sentences against protesters.
The cousin of one of my constituents is among those facing the death penalty in Iran. I would like to use this opportunity to say a little about him and to ask the Minister to do all he can to support my constituent and her family. Mehdi Mohammadi Fard is just 19 years old—it was his birthday last Thursday. He usually works in a salon as a hair stylist and tattoo artist—his passion since he was a young teenager. Mehdi had been suffering poor mental health and was receiving treatment for it, but three months ago, he was among a group of young people involved in the protests. Ten days later, he was arrested and imprisoned.
Mehdi has been tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement in a rat-infested cell, with nothing to lie on and nothing to eat for several days. He has a broken nose now. He has been sexually assaulted and tortured, and has required hospital treatment for his injuries. Three weeks ago, Mehdi was tried in court without legal representation. I have been told that notes from his psychiatrist about his mental state were completely disregarded. He has been sentenced to death for “corruption on earth” and “war against God”. Mehdi does have a lawyer now, and an appeal has been lodged, but his family —both in Iran and here in the UK—are, of course, terrified for him and need our help.
I ask the Minister to do everything he can to support my constituent and to try to save the life of that young man. I hope that he will agree to meet me and my constituent to further discuss the case and what the Government can and will do to help Mehdi.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), whose contribution brought such acute awareness of exactly the sort of situation that families across the world face as Iran continues to industrialise hostage taking. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate. We have all, throughout the House, been passionate about raising our voices for those whom the Iranian regime is trying to silence.
It has been almost five months now since an Iranian-Kurdish woman was arrested and severely beaten, and later died in custody. Mahsa Amini is a symbol for what so many women around the world face, and for what women across Iran have faced for too long: denial of their basic rights, subjugation, and the suggestion that they do not deserve to be treated as even the most basic of human individuals, that they are lesser and have no rights, that anything can happen to them, and that men have the right to dole out punishments, as they see fit, for their own joy and fulfilment. That is what this is: misogyny entrenched within an institution and within a Government; the taking of joy from violence against women because we are lesser. We see that across the world, and we have to raise our voices against it. We in Britain can be a leading voice on that.
Mahsa Amini’s tragic and needless death has shown the enormous courage of the Iranian people and reminded us of just how repressive the regime is. As we speak, the regime in Tehran continues to act with brazen disregard for life and humanity, whether through state murders, violence on the streets of Iran, or the rape of virgins who are arrested for not wearing head scarves enough and told, “You will now go to Allah sullied, as you deserve to be.” That is what is happening in Iranian prisons. Yet we have not sanctioned all the guards at Evin prison. We have sanctioned former guards—who are not there perpetrating crimes currently—but not those who are in the prison now. I ask the Minister to look at that urgently, because it is something that we can change overnight.
The case of the British-Iranian dual national Ali Reza Akbari has also been raised. Last night, we all heard that he was sentenced to death. Like those who have spoken, I hope that he is still alive and that the situation can be changed. But the issue here is that Iran does not recognise British-Iranian dual nationality. There are two questions about why his death sentence has been brought forward. He has been held for a long time—a traditional tactic of the Iranian regime is to hold people, ready for when it needs to use them. As the Iranians are sanctioned—as they should be—they have few cards left to play, so they hold our British nationals in prisons until they need to use them.
Is the Iranian regime bringing forward the death sentence because it wants to prove its point that it is not the Iranian people who are rising up organically against a cruel, evil and repressive regime, but the UK, the US, the west, the Israelis and all those awful people forcing a fake revolution in that country? Iran could be doing it to make that point. It could also be doing it because Akbari used to be a deputy Defence Minister, and the individual for whom he deputised is now secretary-general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. That individual has been the most moderate voice in the Iranian regime over the last few months, and has been the most likely to call for moderate responses, behaviour and dialogue. Is this a warning to him? We do not know, but either way, the result is the same: a British-Iranian national is being used as a hostage to negotiate for what the Iranians need, including the domestic headlines. That is absolutely wrong.
I echo the Foreign Secretary, who said that, if Iran does not halt this, there must be consequences. If Akbari is killed, there must be sanctions. We must consider expelling the chargé d’affaires here in London and recalling our ambassador. It would be helpful to receive from the Minister an update on what progress our ambassador believes he is making in Tehran. I understand that, more often than not, it is better to keep someone on the ground for the small conversations that can take place, for the small support of civil society that can be provided, for the negotiations that need to take place, and for understanding the dynamics of what is really going on. But I question whether we have seen meaningful results from our embassy in Tehran over the last five months. That is not a criticism of our ambassador and our diplomatic staff there, because what they are doing is impossible, but if they can have no meaningful effect, remaining there sends the message that we support a continued relationship with the Iranian regime, and we have to question whether we wish to send that message.
Iran is detaining hostages en masse. Sixty-six foreign and dual nationals have been detained since 2010, 15 of whom have definite links to the UK. We owe it to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and to the Ashoori family to end the Iranian regime’s bartering with human lives. To do so, we need to decide whether we need a special envoy for hostage taking, or a multilateral response, working in some way with the Canadians under their leadership. That is why the Foreign Affairs Committee is holding an inquiry into state hostage taking. I hope that the results will be listened to carefully by the Government.
It is clear that those responsible must be sanctioned. While the regime continues to repress people in Iran, we must also look at its activities in the UK and the west and how they impact on us. We heard last year from the head of MI5 that Iran has plotted the assassination and kidnapping of at least 10 British residents and has crossed over into launching terrorist attacks on British soil, if it can. It has undertaken more assassinations in western Europe in the last five years than any other country. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out, the regime also intimidates British journalists, which is utterly unacceptable.
That comes down to how we make ourselves more resilient to the Iranian state, and that is where the discussion of proscription comes into play. This is by no means a straightforward conversation, and I would like to reflect on some advice by Jonathan Hall, the Government’s terrorism adviser. There are challenges to proscribing the IRGC—I do not suggest that it would be easy—but they are not insurmountable. It all comes down to the application of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Modern states, from the Jacobins, have been responsible for the most lethal instances of terrorism, with the term first used around the French revolution. Terrorism is a tactic that we know states use, and it is in its most devastating form when states pursue it. The enduring policy of the UK Government has been to treat terrorism by states as falling outside the Terrorism Act 2000, but that appears to be a policy position rather than an interpretation of the Act, which I suggest gives us some room for manoeuvre. The best illustration of that is the Salisbury attack by Russia in March 2018. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was incredibly strong in her response, but the Government were scrupulous in treating the attack as hostile state activity, and no counter-terrorism powers were used.
There is no authoritative ruling by the courts on whether state terrorism can be included within the Terrorism Act. However, the High Court suggested in 2006 that, although the Act’s words were,
“taken by themselves, broad enough to cover all lawful acts of war,”
it was a “misconception of the definition” for acts by some states to fall within it.
The effect of proscribing the IRGC would be to accept, contrary to our long-standing policy position, that state forces and therefore states can be “concerned in terrorism” under the Terrorism Act 2000. That requires great consideration, because when a state force uses or threatens violence, it normally complies with the laws of war, known as international humanitarian law. We would therefore have to say that the activities of the IRGC fall outside the definition of terrorism.
Now, I suggest that the House is probably united in believing that the IRGC’s actions fall outside international humanitarian law. It follows that, if the IRGC were proscribed on the basis that its violence amounted to terrorism, the argument would be that acts of violence carried out by friendly state forces—any European partner could be named—are not terrorism because they are carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law.
I recognise that Ministers may be receiving all sorts of complex legal guidance from civil servants, but it has been a policy decision, not a legal decision, so far not to proscribe. Although there are profound implications of that decision, state forces are capable of being “concerned in terrorism”, so the question is more how the definition of terrorism applies to other state forces. We will have to address that, at the risk of upsetting the meaning of terrorism in domestic law, but I argue that it is absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that sets out that, while there are many reasons to say that proscribing the IRGC is insurmountable, it is actually achievable.
I wish to finish by talking about the UK’s commitment to the joint comprehensive plan of action. To all intents and purposes, the JCPOA has failed to deter Iran in any meaningful way. Iran has enriched uranium and is progressing its development of nuclear weapons; all it now falls for it to do is to work out how to put the uranium into a mobile weapons system that it can move and deploy. That is not easy, but Iran has come a long way, and that is because progress is frozen and you might say that the JCPOA is dead.
I get quite frustrated when I hear politicians say that the JCPOA is dead. I ask, “In what way is it dead? What do we do next? Where do we go from here?” That is one of the challenges. If the JCPOA is dead, Britain has to seize the initiative, with its allies, and come up with a new format that rightly calls out human rights abuses, alongside nuclear proliferation, and it must make sure that it finds a new way forward. However, the system currently is not working.
There is an additional problem: while the Government helpfully confirmed over Christmas that the IRGC is sanctioned in its entirety, it is sanctioned only in the context of the JCPOA, which expires in October. That means that, from October, the IRGC will no longer be sanctioned in British law. I suggest that, given the time it takes to do sanctions, we need to act now if we are to make sure that, in October, we do not end up with the IRGC no longer being sanctioned by the British Government.
When we look at why the IRGC is a terrorist organisation, we should not forget its activities in its immediate region. In Iraq, we have Iranian militia committing massacres against religious minorities, ostracising communities, threatening politicians and making Iraqi politics inherently unstable.
In Syria, the Iranian regime has allowed the country to become a drug superstate. I urge all Members to look at that. The Assad regime is heinous. President Assad paid a photographer to take photos of the people who were tortured and killed in his prisons, because he wanted evidence that his wishes were being carried out. I spent two and a half years of my career having to look through all those images, and I will never forget them. I will never forget meeting the women who were forced to watch their husbands be raped in prisons until they gave up whatever their husband, who was supposedly part of the opposition, knew or did not know.
The Iranian regime is part of the reason Assad is still in power. It was never the intention of the Government to bring down Assad—I never heard that sentiment uttered once in my time working there—but did we think that he could not bring peace, stability or freedom to the people of Syria? Absolutely. Iran has now turned Syria into a drug superstate, with class A drugs—especially things such as fentanyl—produced en masse. Those will make their way to British shores. They may only be in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and neighbouring countries at the moment, but they will come to Britain if we do not recognise that our Indo-Pacific tilt cannot mean that we forget the middle east. We have historic commitments and promises to those communities, and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent recommendations for the review of the integrated review make it clear that the middle east has to be a priority.
In Lebanon, Iran is destabilising en masse. We have cholera outbreaks and all sorts of appalling fragilities in that country that should not be there. Hezbollah and Hamas continue to be stood up by Iran.
I argue that Iran is a terrorist regime, whether because of its activities at home, in Europe, in the UK or in its region, and we must act. President Obama’s greatest regret about his time as President was that he did not stand up for the green revolution, and that he listened to his civil servants when they said, “If you raise your voice to the protesters, it will give the Iranian regime more evidence that this is an American plot.” We must not listen to that advice again. We must heed President Obama’s warning. That is why we need sanctions after every single state murder, we must consider recalling our ambassador, we must reconsider whether we are having any meaningful impact in Iran, and we must make sure that we look at a new international, multilateral effort to prevent nuclear war from coming to the middle east and allowing this terrorist state to get those powers.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who speaks with such passion and authority on this very unpleasant subject.
The wave of popular uprisings that have erupted across Iran have woken the world up to its top-down totalitarian regime at its most inhumane. At the start of last autumn, Mahsa Amini was not a household name, but in the aftermath of her supposed death in custody for mis-wearing a hijab, the 22-year-old has become the rallying cause behind a surge of popular protest. Protesters are often young, and they are often women who publicly remove their enforced headscarves and set them alight, chant for freedom, and cut their hair in defiance of a brutal theocratic regime. Men, too, have taken to the streets. Although the protesters are often just teenagers, the movement cuts across gender, generation and class.
And the regime’s response? Violent crackdown—more bloody suppression, killing, sham trials and barbaric public executions, of which there have been four since December and there were two just this weekend. More than 100 are at imminent risk of execution. In addition, there is routine censorship, monitoring and poverty, to the point that lack of water is a concern—predictably, the country’s gas and oil profits do not reach the people.
Recent mobilisations have reverberated, with solidarity protests across continents. My constituency has amassed the fourth highest number of signatures to the two petitions that launched this debate. According to 2021 census figures, of all UK local authorities, Ealing has the fourth highest number of people born in Iran and the fourth highest—there is a pattern here—number of Iranian passport holders. I remember an influx of new classmates arriving from Tehran when I was at Montpelier Primary School in 1978, in anticipation of the Iranian revolution of 1979, following unrest. That revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini and his evil brand of clerical rule to power. Because I was just six at the time, I was not really following the politics of it, but I do remember that England did not qualify for the World cup that year and “Blue Peter” suggested supporting Scotland. In our class, however, Iran was the top choice.
We can contrast those, for me, innocent days with the shame that our diaspora community felt this time round for supporting Iran, and by extension the Iranian regime. When the current team chose not to sing the national anthem in support of the ongoing protests—all 11 of them were in silence as the music played in that flashy stadium in Qatar—it was a massive statement, taking huge courage. It was truly sickening to see just this week the 26-year-old Iranian footballer Amir Nasr-Azadani sentenced to 16 years in prison for taking part in nationwide protests. The offence is sinisterly termed “partaking in enmity against God”, even though the laughably named morality police have been disbanded. We have heard the roll call of other names today.
This debate has sparked great interest among my constituents, and they have furnished me with shocking detail of what is unfolding back home to add to the statistics, were they not shocking enough. Four months after the killing of Mahsa Amini, it is estimated that 516 protesters have been killed in anti-Government protests in Iran. Many more have been maimed and tortured. The Human Rights Activists News Agency has said that the dead include 70 children, and approximately 70% of the population of Iran are under the age of 30. The number arrested is now at 19,200—it is going up by the minute—and that includes 687 students, and there are scary stories of how food in student canteens has been poisoned.
A lady in Ealing told me:
“My own cousin was abducted, blindfolded with her hands and feet tied, thrown in a van and taken to an unknown location, all for chanting ‘freedom’. She’s 25 and was beaten so severely, then thrown off from the van, and she was so distorted she had no idea where she was. It took my family 24 hours to find her. We were however extremely lucky that she was not raped or killed…My cousins have to burn things such as paper or clothing to be able to breathe as it cancels the gases the regime releases in order to deter the protesters.”
Another constituent—she is ex-Montpelier Primary, like me, although she is a lot younger than me, as everyone seems to be nowadays—highlights how this repression is not new. She said:
“My father was also taken and put in the notorious Evin prison…nine years ago. They accused him of being a spy. He was 69 at the time and he experienced two months of solitary confinement and eventually went into a diabetic coma as they wouldn’t give him his meds. He nearly died.”
Others describe how minority populations, such as the Iranians Kurds and others from Balochistan, are even further at the sharp end of this brutal tyranny.
The Iranian regime does all it can to suppress protest and quell news of it spreading by cutting the internet and spreading a campaign of disinformation on state and social media. While it was reassuring to see our Foreign Secretary summon Iran’s most senior diplomat after the regime executed two more protesters only this weekend, after what the UN labelled as
“unfair trials based on forced confessions”,
widespread international condemnation, including from the EU and numerous nation states must be matched with concrete action. We have heard a lot of suggestions today.
Why should women have men dictate what they do or do not wear, putting them in fear of violent reprisals? Iran is a signatory of international treaties and conventions that grant citizens, including women and children, basic rights and freedoms. Given the age of the protesters, these treaties should ensure those rights. The authorities have an obligation to respect freedom of expression and belief. Instead, Iran has hijacked a peaceful global religion with its twisted Shi’a sectarian anti-western worldview, and it calls itself “Islamic Republic”.
What can and should we do to support the Iranian people fighting for freedom? One Iranian-born woman who came to my advice surgery the other day was asking, “Why is my adopted country staying silent and harbouring criminals?” We have not exactly stayed silent, but we could do better. This House should express its solidarity with the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. There are five relatively easy steps that we could take immediately.
First, the Prime Minister must condemn the executions. We are talking about the death penalty here. We need to stop the executions. We should be looking into this notion of Members of this House acting as political sponsors—we have all had emails, and I am unsure how it works, and I would like to hear from the Minister about the exact mechanics—of those facing execution and imprisonment for exercising their right to peaceful protest following bogus trials.
Secondly, we should designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. They have done it in the US, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and those are all allies of ours.
Thirdly, there is something we can do even before banning the IRGC, which would be to extend sanctions beyond named IRGC regime officials to their close family members. It is an open secret that many of the regime’s family members and oligarchs live, have property and assets and/or operate businesses in the UK. We saw Magnitsky-style sanctions come into action quickly after the invasion of Ukraine. The same thing should be happening with Iran. The Met police and the National Crime Agency could between them set up a unit to identify who these people are and seize their assets.
Fourthly, we must stop supplying anti-riot equipment directly or indirectly to the Iranian regime. It is a matter of shame that there is solid evidence that tear gas made in the UK has been used against protesters despite sanctions. That is shocking.
Fifthly—my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who was a long-time Ealing councillor, is no longer in his place, but he talked about the media—we must stop the closure of the BBC Persian radio service at this critical moment when it is needed more than ever. For Iranians, it is the only independent media source out there. It is unbelievable. The decision is putting hundreds of jobs at risk, and the service is due to have the plug pulled this April, despite having 18 million regular users. This happens as Iran shuts down the internet and imprisons journalists on spurious charges of terrorism, such as the two brave women who broke the Mahsa Amini story. Iran wants to curtail information flow, and we cannot allow that to happen.
Rosa Parks and Emmeline Pankhurst—these women’s names are inscribed in our history, and the struggles they fought led to action. Let Mahsa Amini’s death be the start of a different, new Iranian revolution towards freedom, justice and democracy. It is time for “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”—woman, life, freedom.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it.
It is no exaggeration to say that Iran is currently on a knife edge. The protests are growing in intensity and, sadly, the response of the Iranian regime’s forces is growing equally, with savagery. As we have heard, the protests stem from the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was arrested on the spurious charge of mal-veiling—of not wearing her hijab properly in the eyes of a member of the morality police. She was arrested and taken into custody. She was by all accounts treated brutally. She died of skull injuries. It is unsurprising that even in a deeply conservative Muslim state, such an event should give rise to such revulsion, but the popular reaction in Iran to Mahsa’s death has been nothing short of extraordinary. There are huge waves of anti-Government protests right across the country. By 28 December, it was calculated that the uprising had spread to more than 280 towns and cities across Iran and to all 31 provinces of the country. People have taken to the streets, many of them chanting anti-Government slogans. In itself, that is remarkable given the regime’s notorious sensitivity to even the mildest criticism. It is impossible to overstate what is going on at the moment.
Similarly, the response of the security forces has been savage in the extreme. People are losing their lives. It is estimated that in the past four months security forces have killed more than 750 demonstrators, over 70 of whom were young people under the age of 18. So far, more than 600 individuals killed in the protests have been identified by the principal opposition group, the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, which also estimates that over 30,000 protesters have been detained. The regime is executing those protesters. So far, around 40 of them have been sentenced to death, most, as we have heard, on the extraordinary charge of waging war on God. Two young men, Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard, were hanged in December. Just a few days ago, Mohammad Mahdi Karami, aged only 22, and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, aged 39, were also executed. The UN Human Rights Office has, quite properly, condemned the executions, saying, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) pointed out, that they followed
“unfair trials based on false confessions”.
Even as we speak, a 22-year-old young man, Mohammad Ghobadlou, and several others are awaiting the execution of a sentence of death. Mr Ghobadlou was sentenced to death for “spreading corruption on Earth”. According to Amnesty International, the prosecution relied on torture-based evidence, a confession that was relied on to convict him of running over officials with a car, killing one.
Families of the protesters awaiting execution staged protests outside the prison in which they are being held. They continue to protest, even though the security forces fire shots in the air in an attempt to disperse them. There is no doubt that these are exceptionally brave people who are willing to risk their lives to protest against the regime. Despite the harshness of the regime’s response, they remain undeterred. It is noticeable that most protesters are young and many are women. They come from all backgrounds: university and high school students, bazaar traders, manual workers, intellectuals, and people of all ethnic backgrounds and social classes. Thousands upon thousands of them continue to take to the streets, calling for the downfall of the regime and its leaders. It is very clear that what we are witnessing is a very active political movement of people who are no longer willing to put up with the medieval theocratic regime under which they have lived for more than 40 years, and who are seeking to replace it with a modern, democratic, secular Government.
These brave people deserve our support. I commend the Government for what they have already done. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has quite properly described the executions as abhorrent. The United Kingdom has been a driving force in securing the establishment of a fact-finding mission by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the numerous allegations of human rights violations during the uprising. The UK also secured the necessary votes to suspend Iran’s membership of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. All that is welcome, but there is, as other hon. Members have said, much more to be done. The UK should continue to lead the western response, helping to bring forward more concrete measures to deny the regime the ability to continue its repression, and to help the people of Iranian to realise their democratic aspirations. The UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should lead the pressure for recognition of the rights of the Iranian people to defend themselves by any legitimate means available, given that the authorities have effectively declared war upon their own population.
As other hon. Members have said, it is surely now time for the Government to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. The IRGC is the regime’s principal means of exerting control and repression of the Iranian people. Furthermore, it is one of the world’s foremost exporters of terror. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm today that the Government intend to proscribe the IRGC, but I was extremely pleased to read in newspaper reports a few days ago that that is what is going to happen. He may, of course, surprise us and we may learn that from him today.
What the right hon. Gentleman says about the IRGC is entirely accurate. They are a bunch of clerical fascists who rape, kill and maim their way around Iran and outside Iran’s borders. I think there is a consensus across the House that the organisation should be banned, so what does he think is holding the Government up? I think there is sympathy among Ministers to ban the IRGC, but I cannot see what is stopping Ministers from finally making that decision.
The only conclusion I can come to is that the Government do not want to alert the IRGC on when it will happen. I think we all accept that it will happen and I would be astounded, given the noises we have heard over recent days, if it were not to happen.
The Government should also invoke the global human rights sanctions regulations against officials of the regime, including President Ebrahim Raisi, who, according to Amnesty International among others, was a member of the so-called death commission that extrajudicially executed thousands of political dissidents in secret in 1988—the notorious 1988 massacre of political prisoners. The Government should continue to work with international partners to impose a co-ordinated diplomatic boycott on Iran, and demand the immediate release of political prisoners. They should also work through the UN Security Council to insist on access to Iranian prisons and arrange for human rights officials to meet detained protesters.
To repeat, Iran is now on a knife edge. We are witnessing what may well become, and I hope does become, a transformational change in a country that has endured much over the last few decades. Iran is an important country. It is one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Now, the bravery of the Iranian people is finally presenting the prospect of a return to normality for Iran among the community of nations. We in this country must do everything we can to support them at this crucial time.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) and everyone who has already spoken so powerfully today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate, which is perhaps slightly overdue, as it gives us the opportunity to show our solidarity with protestors in Iran and debate the various responses that are open to the UK Government.
Constituents in Glasgow North are extremely passionate about global human rights. The constituency has the distinction of having not one but two very active Amnesty International groups—the west end and the daytime groups. I hear regularly from constituents about many different places around the world where human rights are threatened or undermined and many have been in touch recently about the situation in Iran. The hon. Member for Harrow East, in opening the debate, mentioned the two e-petitions. More than 130 signatures to those petitions from residents in Glasgow North have been recorded on Parliament’s e-petition site. I have heard first-hand testimony from constituents who are from Iran and still have family there, as many others have mentioned. Such testimony about the reality of the oppression on the ground and the protesters’ determination to bring about change is both distressing and inspiring.
As we have heard from other Members, it is difficult to overstate the brutality of the regime in Iran in response to the protests. The story of Dr Aida Rostami is a particularly shocking example. She was treating protesters in the western districts of Tehran—not necessarily protesting herself but delivering first aid and medical care to people injured by security forces during the demonstrations. On 12 December, she disappeared from the hospital where she worked. The next day, her dead body was returned to her family showing signs of torture. The Iranian authorities may claim otherwise, but her family, friends and international experts believe that she was murdered. The principle of medical neutrality—the right of those in battle to receive medical attention and the right of medics to deliver that safely—is protected by the Geneva convention. In other words, the murder of medics who are treating people injured in times of armed conflict and civil unrest is a war crime.
In the face of such brutal repression, the protests continue. Every day since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini on 16 September, people in Iran, led by women and girls, have taken to the streets in support of “Woman, Life, Freedom”—"Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”. The protests are not just about compulsory wearing of the hijab, but a collective cry from the heart for fundamental change to how Iran is governed and how its citizens are allowed to live their lives.
The solidarity of this House and of our constituents with the demonstrators is not in doubt. The need for change in Iran is beyond dispute. The question is: what can we, and the UK Government on our behalf, do to support the cause? The call for the proscription of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already been made incredibly powerfully. Some of my constituents, particularly those from Iran, have been calling for that for years, and will welcome the now clear support from all sides of the House. Of course the Government have to exercise careful judgment, for the reasons discussed, but that step has already been taken by the United States.
The European Union has also sanctioned Iranian state broadcasters. The UK Government could do likewise. As others have said, they could also ensure that the BBC’s Persian service is adequately funded to continue its radio broadcasts so that everyone in the area can hear independent, impartial coverage of what is happening. They must also make sure that nobody associated with the Iranian regime or linked with the atrocities carried out there is able to visit or live in the UK with impunity. There was an earlier point of order about the golden visa regime. The Government must look carefully at golden visas awarded to Iranians with links to the regime, and question what Magnitsky sanctions can be imposed where appropriate.
Are the Government aware of concerns expressed by Iran International about threats to its UK-based journalists, and the concerns of Justice for Iran regarding the behaviour of former Iranian officials who now live in the UK? The Government must put the strongest diplomatic pressure possible on the Iranian regime to halt the execution of protesters and respect the human rights of those charged with or on trial for a capital offence. Amnesty International and other hon. Members have called for UK officials in Iran, including the ambassador, to attend trials and visit prisons to ensure that at least some kind of due process is taking place. I hope we will hear an update from the Government on the progress of the UN fact-finding mission in the country. I echo the points made about the treatment of UK-Iranian dual nationals in the country, especially Mr Akbari.
Finally, how are the Government working with their international allies both to monitor and disrupt the increasing military co-operation and exchange between Iran and Russia? This is a point of considerable concern for constituents I have heard from. The Defence Secretary himself told us in December of Russian equipment being exchanged for Iranian drones, which are then put to use against the people of Ukraine. As we heard so powerfully from others, the Iranian regime’s brutality is clearly not necessarily restricted to its own borders. The UK Government must take action on all those points.
The whole world saw the bravery of the Iranian football team refusing to sing the national anthem at their opening World cup game. Now is the time for the UK Government, their international allies and all of us who believe in freedom and democracy to be brave, too, and not just speak of solidarity but take action in solidarity with the men, women, boys and girls uniting behind women, life and freedom in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time with you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate and ensuring that the issue remains on the political agenda. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Iran’s Human Rights Activists News Agency has reported that at least 516 protesters have been killed in recent months by Iran’s security forces, many of whom have been buried in unmarked graves without families receiving notification. Estimates have reached as high as 30,000 people arrested by the Iranian security forces, with thousands of families unable to contact loved ones who have gone missing and are presumed to be in jail.
Many people—especially women—are opposing the conditions imposed by so-called morality police, but some are protesting about Iran’s behaviour around the world. In recent months, media focus has rightly been on Russian atrocities in Ukraine, but the hegemonic efforts of Iran are spreading death and misery to extended parts of the world. Proxy wars in Yemen and Syria are claiming thousands of lives, while political interference in Lebanon and Gaza causes great concern.
Iranian-made drones have been used in attacks in Ukraine, and also in other areas. On 16 November, there was an Iranian-made drone attack against a tanker off the coast of Oman. The vessel was Liberian-flagged, Singaporean-owned and commissioned by an Israeli business. In response to my written question, the Foreign Office said:
“We remain committed to assuring the safety of shipping in the Middle East region, including through the Gulf of Oman. The UK is a member of the International Maritime Security Construct, along with several Gulf partners, which addresses the threat in the region by providing reassurance to commercial shipping and deterring further threats.”
That is a pretty weak response. In contrast, when I attended the Manama Dialogue conference in Bahrain, the US central command chief announced the deployment of over 100 unmanned vessels in the Gulf region’s strategic waters to stave off that kind of attack. That tangible action really will deter the kind of behaviour that we have seen.
Iran continues with aggressive tactics, including a cyber-attack on this very Parliament. Iran attempted the same on public services in Albania during an opposition rally. Iran also supports military actions in Yemen and Syria. It has destabilised the political process in Lebanon and Gaza through its active support of Hezbollah. A serving Iranian ambassador co-ordinated and supplied explosives that could have killed hundreds of elected politicians in Paris in 2018, including myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. These acts were co-ordinated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is seeking to spread terrorism around the world. In a statement released by MI5 in November, General Ken McCallum stated:
“Iran projects threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services. At its sharpest this includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”
The lives of Iranian-British civilians in the UK have been affected to the extent that many are afraid to live everyday life. In October, Iranian singer Dariush Eghbali’s concert in London was cancelled and evacuated after a bomb threat was received by the Metropolitan police. Eghbali is well known for his protest songs and opposition to the Iranian Government. He had been performing at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith.
We have to ask what emboldened the Iranian regime to behave as a rogue state. I believe that the answer is in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which released $100 billion-worth of overseas financial assets to the Iranian regime. At the time, many of us urged the Government to reject that deal—I have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), but there is no doubt that we have been proved correct. That is a view shared by many around the world, including the President of the European Commission, who made her views public at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.
I feel that the UK Government have not acted as swiftly or gone as far as they could. There remains confusion on whether the IRGC has been or is to be proscribed in its entirety. The Foreign Secretary announced last month that sanctions had been imposed on the IRGC in its entirety, but the Prime Minister failed to confirm that status and only said there was
“a case for proscribing the IRGC”.
Failing to proscribe the IRGC under the Terrorism Act 2000 only emboldens the Iranian Government to continue their suppression of their people. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) explained that the IRGC is proscribed under the terms of the JCPOA and that when the deal expires, so does the proscription. The IRGC is therefore not proscribed under British law and has to be—namely, under the Terrorism Act 2000.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), I acknowledge that the Government have taken certain actions. They co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution to establish a UN investigation into human rights violations committed by the Iranian regime during the recent protests, which passed at a special session of the council on 24 November, and the Government are to be congratulated on that. Ministers also worked with the US Government on removing Iran from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which was achieved on 14 December.
But we need further action. I want to see a cutting of all political ties and no further negotiations with the Islamic regime of Iran. I want to see the termination of the joint comprehensive plan of action in its entirety. I want to see the invoking of the snapback sanction mechanisms under UN Security Council resolution 2231. I want to see the closure of all Iranian-funded Islamic centres across the United Kingdom. I want to see the recalling of the British ambassador from Iran. I want to see the expelling of the Iranian ambassador and all diplomats from the United Kingdom and the freezing of all assets of Islamic regime officials and their families. Most of all, I want to see a maintaining of the sanctions and visa bans on anyone linked to this wicked regime.
Sometimes I become passionate about this issue, but when my mother tells me how concerned she is on reading in the newspapers that we were targeted by a possible terrorist threat, it raises my passionate voice. I hope that the Government continue to protect not only our people but also our Members of Parliament, who are undergoing their daily business, representing their constituents—I have the largest Iranian-born community in the United Kingdom in my constituency—and defending their interests around the world and their families, some of whom remain in Iran and some of whom continue to face danger on a daily basis. For that reason alone, I ask the Government to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord); I did not realise he had undergone that experience, and I appreciate the passion with which he speaks. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate.
We have heard devastating accounts today of Iranians subjected to brutality at the hands of not just the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps but the Iranian justice system, tortured into submission and coerced into confession. We have a responsibility to those being held in jail, awaiting trial, sentence or even execution, that their cries for help do not go unheard.
It has been an excellent debate, and we have to hope that in some small way, the fact that we are here speaking about this makes some difference. In particular, the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) about her constituent’s cousin, Mehdi, who is being held, really brought home to me that these are real lives at stake. If we can save the lives of even a few of them by speaking out today, it has to be worth while.
Others have mentioned the image of the Iranian men’s football team refusing to sing the national anthem in their World cup game with England. That was an incredibly powerful statement, as they stood united in defiance with the women of Iran in the stands and watching the game at home. Their gesture will have been seen far and wide during the most watched sporting event in the world, yet back at home, the authorities in Iran appear oblivious of the world’s gaze. Former Iranian footballer Amir Nasr-Azadani was sentenced to 26 years in prison this week for taking part in the November protests. Standing up for basic women’s rights was deemed tantamount to “waging war on God” by the court. Comparatively, Amir got off lightly; the two men sentenced alongside him were executed.
The regime is no stranger to the death penalty. Some 314 people were executed in 2021 for various offences. I would hope that everyone in this place stands united in their opposition to the death penalty, no matter what the circumstances are, but the scale and precision of these verdicts suggests that something more deliberate and more sinister than we have seen previously in the use of the death penalty in Iran is now happening. These executions are being used as yet another tool of oppression, to silence people, instil fear and stop any expression of dissent. By adopting a very liberal definition of which acts warrant the death penalty, the Islamic Republic of Iran is bent on delivering illiberal justice. There is no transparency in the court proceedings. It is simply a case of revenge and retribution by the Iranian authorities.
There has been well-informed discussion about whether we should proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation, and I join calls for the Government to follow suit. I was interested in what the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), had to say about this being a policy position, not a legal one. I also noted what the hon. Member for Hendon said. I hope that we can get some clarity from the Minister about exactly what we are able to do and that he will take the strongest possible action. I also hope he will respond to the points raised about sanctions running out.
Those who have protested peacefully since the killing of Mahsa Amini and continue bravely to speak out despite the risks to their safety have my admiration and full solidarity. It was so inspiring to see young schoolgirls leading the push for change under the rallying call of “Woman, Life, Freedom”. The sanctions and asset freezes outlined by the Foreign Office in response to the violent crackdown are welcome, but the priority now must be stopping the scheduled executions.
The Foreign Secretary said in December:
“We are not passive observers and we should not merely voice our feelings: we will use our country’s leverage to make a difference.”
Why, then, did the BBC report on Tuesday that the Foreign Secretary has not directly spoken to Iran’s chargé affairs, Mehdi Hosseini Matin, despite instructing the Foreign Office to summon him four times? I appreciate the signal that summoning an official sends, but is it not time we sent an even stronger signal? Is it not time we went further than condemnation and used our leverage to make a difference? I appreciate that it is not in our gift to stop the Iranian regime in their tracks, but what leverage does the Minister think we have? I believe that we can and must do more. That includes securing independent access to trials, trying to secure a moratorium on executions and trying to hold the Iranian regime properly accountable.
The key question is, what can we do? The answer to that is: not very much, honestly. But what we can do is make one hell of a lot of noise about what is happening in Iran, in the UN and in every avenue we can use internationally, because it is absolutely appalling.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. I was for four years in the shadow foreign affairs team with the human rights brief, and I often felt I was taking part in debates where there was a lot of hand-wringing and expressing horror at what was going on in the countries we were talking about. It felt so frustrating and futile to be talking about these issues, and there is a certain sense of impotence in terms of what we can achieve, but he is right to say that we should not let that hold us back from speaking out, because it is about joining our voices. It might not make an immediate difference, but we have to continue speaking out, in the hope that one day at least, it will make a difference.
To conclude, if the international community fails to increase pressure on Iran, the executions will continue, and the situation is likely to get worse. If we stand with the protesters, we may secure their freedom, and we will have honoured our commitment to protect human rights everywhere without discrimination.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this incredibly important and timely debate. All that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men and women to stay silent, so I am absolutely delighted that this House is not staying silent. I have enjoyed listening to the speeches from around the House, and I particularly enjoyed listening to the learned submissions from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who was in her place and is not any longer.
I have a number of refugees living in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea in my constituency who are as horrified as I am at what is happening in their homeland. It is as appalling as it is unlawful. I also have a small personal interest in this matter. My aunt, who is in her 80s, travelled abroad in her 20s, when she got as far as Iran and found the country to be so beautiful and free that she fell in love with an Iranian. She then lived there for at least two very happy decades in a country that is of course one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. Looking at photographs, we see that women were dressed, as we are, in western dress; they were encouraged to work and were encouraged to be educated. They had to flee in 1979 and come back to this country. It is horrifying how, in 40 years, that country has gone back 400 years. The misery and pain that has been inflicted on the people by turning Iran into a medieval country is simply horrifying.
However, I do believe that, for the first time in 40 years, Iran is on the precipice of a fundamental change towards democracy. We have heard it described as a knife edge, but I always prefer to be optimistic and to look forward. It is a change on behalf of all women that we should support and welcome. Over the past six months, we have seen an incredible uprising against this tyrannical, misogynistic regime in Iran. We have seen the protests erupting across the country, and we have seen the people calling for an end to this medieval, theocratic regime and for the establishment of a new democratic and free country.
As has been said, this popular movement is best summed up with the slogan of the protesters: “Woman, Life, Freedom”. It is women who have absolutely been at the heart of this uprising. We have heard how it started with one brave woman, Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in September last year for disobeying Iran’s strict Islamic dress code forcing her to wear a headscarf. She was murdered in custody on 16 September, aged just 22. Not surprisingly, and quite rightly, this was a lightning flash across the world, sparking these protests by women. Young people—men and women—want to see a new free Iran, and we have heard in graphic detail the response with which they have met.
I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene. The truth is that, if there was a free vote in Iran, this lot would be swept away, but there will not be a free vote. Iran is governed by people with guns and secret police who terrify the people. They terrify everyone, and if we were there, we might well be terrified as well. We might well be on a tipping point, but the fact is we have been on a tipping point in Iran for at least 10 years, and nothing has happened, because these people have such a grip on the people of Iran, and it is such a shame. For goodness’ sake, can we somehow, please God, get that tipping point over and let us have freedom for everyone in Iran, because it is a wonderful country?
My right hon. Friend sums up perfectly what is needed and how important it is that we in this place encourage the Government to get over that tipping point and take meaningful action.
The brutality meted out on these brave protesters since September is just appalling. More than 19,200 have been detained—nearly 20,000 people—for doing nothing more than exercising the basic human rights that we in the western world take completely for granted, and 500 have been killed. These figures are just unbelievable. There have been four executions of protesters in the past two months. We know from high-profile cases, such as that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was falsely imprisoned for over six years, that this regime cares nothing for the rule of law, and I really fear for the protesters who have been imprisoned, especially as the average age of those protesters is just 15. All mothers—all parents and grandparents—around the country will know how it would feel if their 15-year-old was taken against their wishes, imprisoned and executed.
Despite that, the protests show that brave women have had enough. They will no longer put up with being legally and brutally repressed. Women in Iran have been treated as second-class citizens since the revolution of 1979, as is evidenced by how excluded they are from public life. Women make up just 16% of the workforce, but in most European countries, as in the UK, the figure is 60%. It is partly because of the repression of women that Iran is on the UK’s list of 31 human rights priority countries. I am sure the Minister will join me in applauding the bravery of the young women standing up against this regime.
This is more than just a movement to secure the removal of forced veiling, valid though that aim is; it is now a movement towards lasting democratic change. When the regime does change, I hope that the tenets set out in the 10-point plan of Mrs Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, are looked at and embodied. Those points call for nothing less than complete gender equality—gender equality in the realms of political, social, cultural and economic rights—as well as equal participation for women in political leadership, the abolition of any form of discrimination against women, the right to choose one’s own clothing freely, the right to freely marry, the right to freely divorce, and the right to obtain education and employment. Those are rights that all women in this place and throughout the western world take completely for granted, and quite rightly.
In October last year, I called in this Chamber for the UN to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women. It seemed to me utterly extraordinary that Iran should have any place whatsoever on a body designed to look after women’s rights. I was delighted when the UN voted to remove Iran from that commission in December. These political statements, while they may seem like empty words and not real action, are incredibly important, because they show that the international community condemns what is going on.
The UK is no stranger to taking action and disapproving of certain regimes, and I am proud that we have taken some action in relation to Iran. Since the beginning of the latest round of protests, the UK has imposed sanctions against the morality police and other senior figures in the Iranian regime. We now sanction 119 individuals and two entities in Iran, and we have rightly sanctioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Since its creation in 1979, the IRGC has been actively oppressing dissidents inside Iran and spreading terrorism abroad. We have heard that the IRGC funds and supports terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and many other regional proxy groups. It also plays a leading role in the suppression of the rights of women and in violently suppressing protesters.
I believe, however, that we now need to go further. The USA and Canada have gone further, and they are doing more than sanctioning the IRGC, which they now proscribe as a terrorist organisation. I urge the Government to follow suit. Proscribing the group would mean that it would become a criminal offence to belong to the IRGC, attend its meetings, carry its logo in public or encourage its activities. Most importantly, it would put the body on a similar legal footing to al-Qaeda and Daesh, where I believe it belongs. I was encouraged to read reports in The Daily Telegraph last week that the Government are considering taking such action, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
To conclude, proscribing the IRGC would send a strong signal to the Iranian regime that it cannot continue to supress women. It would send a strong signal to the women of Iran that the UK is on their side. Above all, it would send a signal to the Iranian regime that its time is up. Change is coming. The people of Iran will continue to fight for that, and we in this place will continue to stand with them and support it.
I wish to say a few brief words about the workers’ movement in Iran.
I was particularly moved, as were others, by the description by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) of the plight of the family she is dealing with. I have 2,000 asylum seekers in hotels in my constituency, and several are from Iran. Listening to their stories is equally moving. When we have debates about asylum seekers in this House, it is sometimes worth recording where those people have come from, and what they endured before they—hopefully—reached safety in this country.
I fully agree with the proscription of the revolutionary guard, which is long overdue, and with the implementation of Magnitsky sanctions. I am surprised—well, shocked really—about the threats to the BBC Persian service, and I agree with other Members about the need to continue its funding. We in this House are committed to diplomacy as much as we possibly can be, but there does come a time when diplomacy is no longer working and when, in some ways, the diplomats who are located here are working against the best interests of our country and our citizens, as well as of their own. I therefore agree with the closure of the Iranian embassy and the expulsion of the diplomats. I believe that is now overdue.
To move on to the workers’ movement in Iran, the interesting thing about this uprising, or potential revolution, is that it cuts across all social and economic classes and has brought people together. For those who were engaged at the time, it is worth recalling that when the Shah fell in 1979, it was largely as a result of mass strikes throughout 1978. The workers’ movement became the tipping point for the removal of the Shah. It is also important to note that no Iranian I have spoken to so far is calling for the return of a monarchist Government. They are calling for a democratic Government, even though the Iranian regime is seeking to promote the myth of some form of retrieval of a Shah-type regime. That is not what this is; it is a democratic struggle.
The mass strikes that took place in 1978 toppled the Shah. The ayatollahs learned from that and sought to eradicate the trade union movement in Iran. Instead, they imposed state sanctioned organisations, supposedly to represent the workers, although they never did. In addition, they introduced policies of privatisation—almost the creation of a gig economy—to prevent workers from working together in an organised movement. Those who were in the House way back in 2004 will recall that Members across the House—I believe across all parties—strongly supported the heroic struggle of the Tehran bus workers’ union when it came out on strike. That was met with repression and the imprisonment of many of those trade unionists, some of whom disappeared.
Nevertheless, the heroic struggle of workers in Iran continued. Some Members will remember that in 2015, we raised what was happening with the teachers’ union in Iran, and at that time the general secretary of the trade union, Esmail Abdi was arrested. There was a hunger strike, and the House—again on a cross-party basis—supported that workers’ struggle.
What has been interesting about the recent uprisings is the engagement across all social classes, and also the courage demonstrated in the strikes now being organised. In December before Christmas, there was a three-day strike during which the shops, markets and businesses were closed down in opposition to what was happening under the existing regime. In addition, oil workers demonstrated outside their employers’ headquarters, thanks to a combination of support for the struggles that have taken place for democracy and a reaction to what is happening to the living standards of workers under the regime, with high inflation, wages suppressed and the inability even to represent each other in negotiations with employers. This is more than just an uprising; this goes way across society, with workers and others coming together in all the social forums they can to demand change.
We in this House have a role in making noise, exposing what is taking place and expressing our condemnation, but we also have a responsibility to show solidarity. In December, a group of Iranian men and women who have a history of trade union and other struggles in Iran, and who currently live in this country as refugees, came together with trade unionists in this country and formed the committee of solidarity with the workers’ movement of Iran. The intention of that committee is to engage with trade unions in this country, and with the TUC, to see what solidarity work can be undertaken for the workers’ struggles in Iran. Yes, these are expressions of solidarity, but possibly using the international organisations of the trade union movement to express that solidarity more effectively. That committee is now linking up with trade unionists across Europe in particular, and in America, to see what joint actions can be taken.
I simply and briefly ask the House to welcome the formation of that committee for workers’ solidarity, to support the work it will be doing to expose what is going on, to support those expressions of support for workers taking action in Iran, and to consider what other practical actions could be taken. I believe that could be one element of supporting the significant breakthrough that is potentially available to Iranians at the moment.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate. It has been a powerful debate that will send a strong message to the Iranian regime about our views in this country.
I rise on behalf of my Iranian constituents and in full solidarity with the Iranian people in their fight against their repressive and abusive regime. I speak also on behalf of many constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields who have contacted me about the situation. It is breaking many hearts, as I know from people I have met in my surgeries and on the streets. I bump into people who say how much they would like me to speak out about what is happening in Iran. They have been on protests in London. They can go to those protests without fear of being kidnapped on the way, being thrown into prison, having a sham trial, and being tortured and abused, which is what so many young people in Iran are facing—even those wrongly thought to be going to a protest. It has been heartbreaking to hear those stories about people going to protests, just as young people in Putney do all the time, and suffering that abuse.
I thank the hon. Lady—my hon. Friend—for allowing me to intervene. If any of us were to make a speech such as the one we have made this afternoon in Iran, we would be dead meat very quickly. We are extremely lucky to be able to speak as we do and condemn this awful regime. All I can say is that we have to make as much noise as we can to try to get rid of it.
I welcome that intervention. I really believe that that is what we are doing in the debate today. I am pleased to be able to join Members from across the House who are united in so many ways on this issue.
On 8 January, one person was killed by the regime who had been to visit his parents’ gravestones. He was wrongly thought to be part of a protest that was taking place nearby and that resulted in him being murdered by the regime; he was sentenced to death.
The extensive use of force against protesters is horrific. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that more than 300 people have been killed in the latest crackdown by the regime, including 40 children. More than 18,000 people have been arrested and a reported 488 people have been killed. We know that the mistreatment of women has been a brutal reality for Iranian women for many years, both in Iran and overseas. That is state sanction of misogyny and murder of women on a mass scale.
I have previously spoken to support the brave women and girls of Iran in their protests and about the abhorrence of the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was the same age as one of my daughters. That really brings home to me that these young people are being so brave in their protests. They are the same age as my children, who could easily face the same situation as so many in Iran. There is also the online harassment, kidnapping and execution of so many others.
Colleagues raised the 26 individuals at risk of execution without fair trial for made-up offences. I add my voice to those calling for their immediate release. One of those individuals, who has since been hanged, was 22-year-old karate champion Mehdi Karami, who had dreams of one day competing in the Olympics and won numerous medals for Iran in various competitions. Mehdi’s last words were:
“Dad, they’ve reached a verdict. Mine is execution by hanging. Don’t tell mum.”
He was a proud Iranian patriot who wanted to live a normal life and stand up for his country at home and abroad. It is just heartbreaking.
Another case raised today is that of Alireza Akbari, a dual national UK citizen who has been denied representation, denied legal process and is on death row with an imminent execution fate. His family have been called in for a final meeting. The Foreign Secretary has denounced his treatment as politically motivated. I hope to hear from the Minister about what actions have been taken by our diplomats to secure his release and to avoid his murder. We cannot stay silent.
As has been mentioned, the IRGC is destabilising the region. It goes far beyond the context of Iran, and not least to Lebanon, which I visited last year. This week, I spoke to community leaders about its current political disarray and economic collapse, fuelled in part by the actions of Hezbollah under the patronage of Iran. The Government could be doing more in relation to the ongoing abuses of human rights in Iran and the activity of the IRGC on British soil.
What can we do? First, we must continue to stand firmly against the Iranian regime. The Government’s announcement of sanctions against certain regime figures is welcome, but they should be the start of more. We must continue to ramp up our sanctions regime, bringing to justice human rights abusers from the bloody 2019 crackdown as well. I hope to hear later that the Minister has been thinking seriously about new sanctions against the regime, sanctions against the families of those already sanctioned, and how we can ratchet those up.
Secondly, we must maximise support for Iranians on the ground. For example, we could consider ensuring that all political prisoners in Iran have political sponsorships in the UK, following similar moves by politicians in Germany, which has saved Iranian lives and overturned death sentences. We need to ensure that Iranians have internet access so that they can facilitate and organise protests, and welcome Iranian refugees here with open arms. The Government should give Iranians who are fighting with their lives the options to flee and issue visas, especially to those people who have been given death sentences in Iran and those women who are leading the protests.
I end by posing five questions to the Government. First, will the Minister confirm today, as has been asked by so many Members across the House, plans to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in full in the coming days? If not now, when? The Government should move quickly to decide whether to follow the US and other countries to formally proscribe the IRGC.
Secondly, what plans does the Minister have to expand the sanctions regime to other Iranian human rights abusers, such as the then technology Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi and the IRGC commander Salar Abnoush? Thirdly, does the Minister agree that now is the time to speak the truth plainly when calling out Tehran’s malign behaviour, including being bold enough to label the regime’s state hostage-taking policies for what they really are?
Fourthly, there is a large Iranian diaspora in the UK, including in my constituency, who are fearing for their family and friends in Iran and in desperate worry because often they cannot hear from them. However, the community is under threat here, too. Can the Minister set out what the UK is doing to ensure the safety of British-Iranian journalists and to tackle pro-Iranian extremism, which we have seen in the UK? Fifthly, what would it take for the Government to take steps to expel the Iranian diplomats here? I understand that the consequence would be the expulsion of our diplomats from Tehran. Could the Minister outline the benefit of our diplomats staying in Tehran—that would be the reason not to expel the diplomats here—but also what it would really take: what are the red lines by which we would expel the diplomats here? We cannot continue to say that this is a regime similar to others—as we have heard today, it has gone far beyond that.
The clock is ticking. Since we broke for our last recess, more innocent Iranian citizens have been executed. Every second counts. Feet dragging costs lives. Those brave souls who have stood up against the brutal regime need all the help that we can give them. I end with solidarity for the people of Iran, support for a democratic solution and to stand up for all other victims of oppressive and brutal regimes across the world. “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the Backbench Business Committee for giving the House the opportunity to debate and speak at length on this vital issue. We have heard harrowing and illustrative case studies on the plight of the people in Iran. I also join my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in welcoming the formation of the committee for solidarity with the workers’ movement of Iran.
This is an issue on which many of us have been contacted by constituents with family and friends in Iran, or just by people who are deeply alarmed by the wave of brutal repression under way in Iran. The detention of thousands of people and the killing of many people by the Iranian Government in response to the protests against them, following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, have appalled and alarmed us all.
Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini was arbitrarily arrested by the so-called morality police for not complying with the country’s compulsory veiling laws. Nothing short of a popular uprising was sparked by her death in custody. About 1,000 separate protests are believed to have taken place across 146 cities and 140 university and college campuses around Iran. That uprising has democracy and civil rights placed at its core. It is right that we stand with pro-democracy and human rights activists in Iran, and that is why I and other hon. Members have signed early-day motion 581. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) on that initiative.
The initial uprising, led by brilliant and brave young women under the rallying cry, “Woman, Life, Freedom” has now widened. For example, I recently heard—we heard this from my right hon. Friend—about how there is now a series of labour movement actions against the Iranian Government. These nationwide protests have been met with lethal and unlawful violence by the Iranian authorities. Amnesty warns:
“Hundreds have been killed with impunity, including at least 44 children.”
Other estimates suggest that more than 16,000 people have been arrested. Today, we offer our solidarity with those who are campaigning for human rights and justice, especially those who are so bravely putting themselves at such great risk by doing so.
The rest of my remarks will focus on the use of the death penalty in Iran. As Amnesty says:
“In a new phase of this crackdown, Iranian authorities are not only continuing to carry out mass killings, arrests, enforced disappearances and torture of dissidents, but are now using the death penalty as a tool of political repression.”
In November, Iran’s legislators decreed that the death penalty could be applied to protesters brought before the courts on charges of “serious crimes” against the state. The charges against protesters have included vaguely defined national security charges such as “enmity against God”, “corruption on Earth” and “armed rebellion”. All those vaguely worded crimes are capital offences.
So far, four young men have faced arbitrary execution, following their sentencing during sham trials in connection with the protests. Majidreza Rahnavard was publicly executed less than two weeks after his only rubber-stamp court hearing. Mohsen Shekari was executed three weeks after Iranian authorities convicted him and sentenced him to death. Tragically, it was reported last week that Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini were also executed.
The Iranian authorities must immediately drop the death sentences handed to other protesters. Amnesty International has identified 25 individuals who remain at serious risk of execution. As part of what needs to be an international campaign to prevent further executions, I wish to put on the record of this House the cases of those 25, who fall under four categories.
The first category is the individuals who have been sentenced to death: Mohammad Boroughani, Mohammad Ghobadlou, Manouchehr Mehman Navaz, Hamid Ghare Hasanlou, Sayed Mohammad Hosseini, Hossein Mohammadi and an unnamed individual in Alborz province. Reports suggest that two of the named individuals, Mohammad Boroughani and Mohammad Ghobadlou, have recently been moved to solitary confinement, raising fears that they may face imminent execution.
The second category is the individuals who have undergone trial on capital charges and who either are at risk of being sentenced to death or may already have been sentenced to death. As of 15 December, there was no publicly available information on the status of their cases. They are Saeed Shirazi, Abolfazl Mehri Hossein Hajilou and Mohsen Rezazadeh Gharegholou.
The third category is the individuals who have been charged with capital offences and may be either awaiting or undergoing trial. Their names are Akbar Ghafari, Toomaj Salehi, Ebarhim Rigi, Amir Nasr Azadani, Saleh Mirhashemi, Saeed Yaghoubi, Farzad Tahazadeh, Farhad Tahazadeh, Karvan Shahiparvaneh, Reza Eslamdoost, Hajar Hamidi and Shahram Marouf-Moula.
The fourth and final category is the individuals who have had their requests for judicial review accepted. Their cases are to be remanded to the lower court for retrial and they may therefore be resentenced to death. They are Sahand Nourmohammad-Zadeh, Saman Seydi Yasin and Mahan Sedarat Madani, who has a suspended sentence.
I have read out those names because it is very important that we do all we can to raise public awareness and make sure that the Government of Iran know that the international community is watching not only the wider wave of oppression, but the fate of those individuals. I know that the Minister will respond to this debate by explaining everything that the UK Government can do to put pressure on the Iranian Government not only to end the wider wave of oppression, but to ensure that the individuals named do not meet the fate of execution. Amnesty International fears that many others in addition to those I have named are at risk of facing the death penalty, given the thousands of people who have been arrested and the number of indictments that have been issued by the authorities.
It is very welcome that the House has the opportunity today, on a cross-party basis, to expose the reality for people in Iran who are facing the prospect of execution for nothing other than standing up for human rights and justice. It is really important that a united voice comes from the House today and that the Government explain to us what they can do. The Government can take steps: as colleagues have said, we are under no illusions, but our Government can be part of an international wave of pressure that can save lives in Iran and help to end this wave of repression.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing it and for setting the scene so very well, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made significant and powerful contributions.
I echo the words of my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon). I hope that more will come out of our debate than this, but if nothing else, it will demonstrate that Members of this House stand in solidarity with protesters in Iran. That means a lot, from a distance, to people we may never meet who may be looking to this House for some support and succour in relation to the protests. The people protesting in Iran are doing so not for social media clout or for Instagram posts, as I fear some who protest issues in this country may sometimes do. They are protesting in sheer determination to improve their lot and claim back their right to live with dignity, free from unjust and undue oppression and state overreach.
This is undoubtedly a battle for liberty, for freedom and for democracy. The Iranian regime wants Members of this House and people across the world to believe that the protests are minor and are concentrated in small pockets of Iranian society, but its misinformation must be ignored. The protests are much more than that. The reality of what is happening has to be put on record: the protests are widespread and well organised. As Mrs Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the largest Iranian opposition group, has highlighted, the protests are not limited to the issue of the compulsory hijab. This is a revolution.
The people of Iran are calling for an end to the Islamic Republic in its entirety, rejecting any form of dictatorship. They do not want either the mullahs or the return of the Shah dictatorship. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, those are not the things they want; they want a free, democratic society, and we support them. They want a democratic and secular republic in which the rights of every individual—every man, every woman and every child—are protected. The National Council of Resistance of Iran’s 10-point plan for a future Iran would deliver exactly that. I put on record my support for that 10-point plan.
Only by understanding the true nature of what is going on in Iran can we deliver the support that the Iranian people need. That support must now take a number of forms. We must recognise the Iranian people’s rights to oppose the Iranian regime’s suppressive and despotic forces. We must recognise the revolution that is taking place. Furthermore, we must intensify pressure on the Iranian regime’s suppressive forces by listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. Those are the things that we need to do, and that is the reality of what is happening in Iran today.
We should remember that those who are protesting in Iran are not doing so simply to improve their own situation. They are motivated entirely by the hope of improving the country for their children and for their children’s children. Their courageous actions, if successful, will improve human rights and conditions for everyone in Iran, helping all Iranians to live in accordance with their inherent dignity.
The protests in Iran were sparked by the brutal treatment of Mahsa Jina Amini. The protesters are largely advocating for women’s rights, which I fully support, but those who protest for their right to live free from oppression help to advance rights for all. They are shedding light on Iran’s human rights record on more than just its treatment of women, which is abysmal.
An area of particular concern surrounding these protests is the threat of the death penalty for those who participate in them. As other Members have said, Iran continues to be one of the leading implementers of the death penalty, with devastating implications for some of the protesters there. Human rights groups estimate that between 26 and 100 protesters risk facing the death penalty for their participation in the protests—peaceful protests—not to mention the fact that 516 people have already died during them. Not only does this renew my resolve and, I hope, the resolve of the House to speak up for the Iranian people, but it frames the thousands of protesters in another light, one that we all recognise. Imagine the bravery and courage of these people who risk their lives for basic democracy and human rights. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington spoke of workers’ groups coming together, and how strongly we support that.
The death penalty is used to stifle those who dissent from the Iranian regime, or from the majority-held belief of Islam and Iran’s interpretation of it. Iranian law considers acts such as “insulting the Prophet” or “apostasy” to be crimes punishable by death. Such grounds for the death penalty pose a clear threat to the free exercise of article 18 of the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights, which is the right to freedom of religion or belief. That is an issue close to my heart, and I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I believe absolutely that people’s right to have their own religion and to express that belief is an integral part of human rights: the two issues march hand in hand.
Those protesting in Iran face a horrific scale of threat, but for some groups such levels of danger are commonplace and have existed for many years. According to Amnesty International, in 2021 the right to freedom of religion or belief was further undermined in Iran when its Parliament introduced two articles to the penal code that issued up to five years’ imprisonment, and sometimes a fine as well, for the ludicrous charges of
“insulting Iranian ethnicities, divine religions or Islamic denominations”
or engaging in
“deviant educational or proselytizing activity contradicting...Islam”.
I think of the religious minorities who face entrenched discrimination, violence and systemic, crippling exclusion, including Baha’is—I have spoken to two Baha’i women who face a second 10-year prison sentence just for being Baha’is, which the hon. Member for Harrow East referred to as well—and Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims, who suffer discrimination under law and in practice. Baha’is are subject to particular hostility from the Iranian regime, suffering from arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance, the destruction of homes and even cemeteries—the very graves where people’s loved ones lie—and prohibition from higher education. They have no opportunity to advance themselves either educationally or in employment.
In view of Iran’s abhorrent treatment of such minorities and its utter disregard for human rights across the board, I believe that our Government should continue to apply pressure on the regime through institutions such as the United Nations and its affiliated bodies, but given Iran’s selective commitment, or lack of commitment, to upholding international law—as previously concluded by the Foreign Affairs Committee—we should rightly be sceptical about the extent to which our Government can bring compliance through gentle nudging alone. It will take a great deal more than that. It is therefore to be recommended that the UK seek other means to bring positive change in Iran and to support the ambitions and hopes of the protesters there. However, I thank the Minister and the Government for what they are doing. I think they are on the same page as us: we are frustrated about not seeing action with the intensity and urgency that we would like to see.
I welcome the move by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to sanction 10 Iranian officials connected with the regime’s judicial and prison systems, but such a response is not enough. Further use of Magnitsky-style sanctions could be made. Moreover, people here in the UK are guilty of calling for protesters to be executed. Seyed Hashem Moosavi, for instance, is here in London, sanction-free, acting as Iran’s propaganda mouthpiece. Moosavi is supposedly the head of an Iranian-funded mosque in Maida Vale—the Islamic centre of England—which, it is worth noting, received more than £100,000 of taxpayers’ money under the coronavirus furlough scheme. In this role, Moosavi hosted a vigil in memory of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the expeditionary forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was killed in Iraq in by the US in January 2020.
The IRGC was proscribed as a foreign terrorist organization by the US in 2019, and it is reported—the Minister may or may not be able to confirm this—that the UK Government intend to do the same within the next few weeks. It would be great if we could send that message from the Chamber today. The Government swiftly sanctioned allies of Putin who resided in London, so—I say this very gently, and it is not meant as a criticism—why the inaction when another hostile nation abuses human rights and exhibits disregard for international law? It should be treated in the same way.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has noted that
“Iran’s human rights record and selective commitment to upholding international law is a threat to the rules based international system generally”.
The protests in Iran offer a prime opportunity for this country—our country, our people and our Government—to renew its commitment to defending the rights of all, in the interest of all. The rules-based international system safeguards against corruption and impunity, and safeguards the rights of each person. It is in our Government’s interests to bear that in mind, and to choose wisely before they follow the path of inaction. Today the lives of the protesters killed on the streets of Iranian cities, and those executed in Iranian prisons, strengthen the will of the Iranian people. They see the end in sight, and we have a duty in this Parliament to support their will in any way we can.
Let me finally take a moment to recall our colleague Sir David Amess. For many years, Sir David used words in our debates to support the Iranian people’s right to bring about change and live in a free and democratic society. 2023 could be the year in which the Iranian people’s dreams come true, and I will be doing all I can to ensure that that happens.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I am delighted to have been called so early in the debate! Let me start by thanking the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for initiating this timely, topical and important debate on not only the treatment of protesters in Iran, but the political situation there. As we know, it is destabilising not just for its own people, but for those across the region and, indeed, the globe.
I want to reiterate some of the comments that have been made, notably those made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I do not have a problem with Iran the country—its history, its culture and its proud, proud people. What I do have is a problem with the evil, barbaric, tyrannical, murderous regime of the supreme leader and the treatment of his own people.
On 16 September, the brutal death—I would call it a murder—of Mahsa Amini shook the world. Up until that point, we had spoken about Iran numerous times in the Chamber and Westminster Hall, and there had been numerous calls, as there have been today, for the UK to go further, for instance by proscribing Hezbollah and Hamas across the globe and, now, proscribing the IRGC. We have been calling for that for a number of years, and there is cross-party, cross-Chamber and cross-House support for it, yet still we are waiting. That death on 16 September, however, not only shook us in this country, but shook the people of Iran. When there were protests a couple of years ago, they were stamped out very quickly with brutal treatment from the regime.
What we are seeing now from the brave women and men of that country makes it clear that they have had enough. There is now a hope and aspiration for real regime change, because they know what the penalties are. They know of the risks not only to their own safety and their own lives, but to the lives of their families, and they are still prepared to protest. For that, they have not only our thanks and our solidarity, but our support as well.
When we all watched the World Cup there were many things we took from it, but what I took from the England-Iran game were the powerful statements by the Iranian football team before the match, during the singing of the national anthems, and then after the match. They did not want to stand by and support their regime. They did not want to support what was happening in their country. We see that not only with the football team, as all sportspeople are repressed. They fear not only that they will be murdered if they go back to Iran, but attacks, torture and, ultimately, execution. As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), the Chair of the Select Committee, said, we are seeing state-sponsored murder on a brutal scale.
This is not just about Iran’s treatment of its own people. Iran has destabilised the region for numerous years in how it treats the Kurds and in its approach to Israel and the entire middle east. More recently, it has provided attack drones for Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.
We have also seen the Iranian regime take a negative approach not only to the state of Israel but to Jewish people across the globe, by propagating antisemitism, including holocaust denial. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, it is now more important than ever to call out the evil of holocaust denial. In recent years, we have seen high-profile competitions such as the international holocaust cartoon competition being held in Iran with the Iranian Government’s support. The most recent competition was held in 2016, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it had 150 entries, all depicting holocaust denial and claims of holocaust hoaxes. The competition tries to denigrate one of the worst crimes against humanity the world has ever seen. Despite the denial of Iran’s Foreign Minister, the holocaust cartoon competition is linked to the Iranian regime, as confirmed by Iran’s Ministry of Culture. Conflicting statements are a recurring theme of the Iranian regime, which produces different messages for domestic and overseas consumption.
Iran has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism. It funds Hamas, Hezbollah and numerous regimes across the middle east, including in Lebanon and, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, Syria. We need to continue calling this out, because Iran’s support for terrorism is a global threat, particularly to Jewish communities, which have been repeatedly targeted. The most notable example is the 1994 Hezbollah bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina building in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. This continued threat is a major reason why Jewish communities around the world, including in my constituency, require security outside schools, synagogues, community centres and events.
In 2012, Iran or Hezbollah was connected to incidents targeting Jewish communities or Israeli interests in India, Georgia, Thailand, Singapore, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Kenya and this country. This continued threat is a major reason why Jewish communities around the world fear for their safety, and it is why we need organisations such as the Community Security Trust to make sure that our Jewish constituents and friends are safe. Again, I pay tribute to the Community Security Trust’s work to keep my constituents safe to go about their daily lives.
The UK should continue to monitor the global and domestic threat from Iranian-backed terrorism and take action to limit terrorists’ ability to operate domestically, regionally and globally. The Government should be commended for supporting the security of the UK’s Jewish communities against this threat. The Government took far too long to proscribe Hezbollah, compared with other countries, but we need to have further conversations with the EU and our neighbours and friends to make sure they are also proscribing Hezbollah in its entirety.
I share the international community’s concern about a nuclear Iran, as highlighted by the Chairman of the Select Committee. The JCPOA has essentially been dead for three years, yet we have allowed Iran not only to enrich uranium but to develop greater scientific understanding and knowledge so that, if we were to take it away, it would be back in a matter of weeks. We need to do so much more, and I share those concerns.
What do we do now that the JCPOA is dead? I would love to say that we could go back to the negotiating table to find a solution, but I think that moment has passed. The Iranian regime does not care about negotiating. It does not care about the sanctions we might impose on Iran, the IRGC or the police, because so much of its economy is driven by the black market. We need to find new, innovative and meaningful ways to address the situation, but it will also involve our friends and allies in the US, the UN, Germany and France. We need to make sure we are all singing from the same hymn sheet if we are to address the situation, because we need to address not only the threat of a nuclear Iran but the state- sponsored terrorism it is exporting across the globe.
Any future UK relationship with Iran must take into account not only those destabilising factors but what Iran is doing to its own people. As we have seen, the number of murders, arrests and tortures are increasing on a daily basis.
I am sure everyone in this Chamber, in this House and, indeed, in this Parliament sends their support to every single person who is protesting, whether on the streets of Tehran or, as we saw on Sunday, the streets of London. We support their freedom from Iran’s tyrannical regime, and we back their cries of “Woman, Life, Freedom”.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
It is a genuine pleasure to speak in this hugely important debate and to follow the many significant and well-informed contributions we have heard from both sides of the House. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate.
The Scottish National party stands in full solidarity with those incredibly brave Iranian women, men and young people whose desire to see political, economic and social change in their country has brought out the worst in a regime that is well known for its ruthlessness and brutality. The accounts we have heard today have been truly harrowing, none more so than the one we heard from the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood).
The protesters’ bravery in standing up to the dictatorship is beyond inspiring, and each and every one of us who believes in freedom and human rights owes it to them not just to stand in solidarity and to unequivocally condemn the regime but to promise to do everything we can to bring the perpetrators to justice, regardless of how long it takes. There have been a number of questions about what we can do. Although our options may be limited in the short term, we can in the long term commit to ensuring that there will be no impunity and no hiding place for the perpetrators of these awful, awful crimes.
As we have heard, the death of Mahsa Amini has been the catalyst for the largest protests that Iran has witnessed since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. As Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe recently wrote:
“Mahsa’s death is the latest blow to the people of a country long abused… Women in Iran are desperate. They are furious and restless. They cannot take it anymore.”
To the cry of “Woman, Life, Freedom”, women and girls are removing their headscarves and, in an act of incredible bravery, defying the regime. But that bravery and defiance comes at a huge personal cost to so many individuals and families.
Hours before she disappeared on 20 September, 16-year-old Nika Shakarami was recorded burning her headscarf at a protest in Tehran. Later that night, she messaged a friend to say that she was being chased by the police, and she was witnessed being bundled into a police van. Shortly afterwards, her Telegram and Instagram accounts were deleted and her phone was turned off. Ten days later, Nika’s family were told that she was dead, and they were given only a few seconds to identify her. Her mother says the revolutionary guards told her that Nika had been in their custody for five days before being handed over to the notorious Evin prison.
Tragedy is, all too often, a reality for women who defy the regime. It is a similar story for 23-year-old Hadis Najafi, a social media influencer who disappeared the following night. Before leaving to join the protest, she sent a video to a friend saying, “I would like to think that, when I think about this a few years later, I will be pleased that I joined this protest.” Thirty minutes after leaving her house, Hadis was shot dead. She was shot at least six times in the face, neck and heart, although her family believe she was shot 20 times. When we talk about the protests and the protesters, we must do so in human terms. We must remember the 22-year-old Mahsa, the 16-year-old Nika and the 23-year-old Hadis as young women who were killed for demanding the rights that every single one of us in this country takes for granted. To try to understand why Mahsa, Nika, Hadis and tens of thousands of other girls pose such a threat to the regime and its ideology, it is worth remembering the words of Hossein Jalali, an Iranian MP and member of that Parliament’s culture committee, who said recently:
“The hijab is the flag of the Islamic Republic. Those who refuse to wear hijab will have to pay a heavy price”.
“Moving away from the hijab means a retreat of the Islamic Republic”.
That explains why Professor Azadeh Kian, the French-Iranian director of the centre for gender and feminist studies at the University of Paris, said:
“What these women are doing in Iran is a revolution, at least a cultural revolution”.
It seems now that it is not just the women of Iran who cannot take it anymore, as they have been joined by workers, students and minority communities. They are taking to the streets to voice their pent-up anger at this regime, and it must be concerned. As we have heard, the average age of a protester is 15; young Iranians, male and female, are telling the regime that its time is up, and the regime is responding in the only way it knows how. That grassroots demand for change is not going to go away and at some point the regime will have to accept that its tried and trusted tactic of brutal repression simply will not work any more.
Across this House, Members will stand in solidarity with the brave women, men, and young people of Iran. Similarly, we will fully support the United Nations in the work it is doing and its international fact-finding mission. I echo the calls made for the proscription of the IRGC. If we are not going to proscribe that organisation, the Minister will have to explain why.
Finally, let me echo the words of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady); there is something quick, meaningful and practical that we can do right now, which is to reverse the decision made to move the BBC World Service Persian language broadcasts from radio to a digital-only platform. The Iranian Government can and do cut the internet easily, thereby denying the Iranian people a trusted source of news from the outside world. As we know, the FCDO partly funds the World Service, but budgetary pressures on the BBC mean that it has chosen to make its Persian language service internet only. It would take only a tiny amount of extra money to reverse this decision and get the Persian language broadcasts back on to the radio: a tiny sum of money that would tell the people of Iran that the world is watching, we are aware of their struggle and they are not alone. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
I call the Opposition Front-Bencher.
First, let me thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this important and timely debate. I also thank all those in this House who have expressed their solidarity with the Iranian protesters, who, despite the brutal crackdown by the regime, are still demanding equality for women, their right to live their lives as they wish and their fundamental political freedoms. What is so inspiring is that those protests comprise a mass movement, led by women and girls from across Iranian society, held together by the rallying cry of “Woman, Life, Freedom”. All of us who believe in fundamental freedoms that no one should be denied should be in solidarity with them, and we should rightly deplore the violence the regime has unleashed on protesters.
In December last year, the regime’s brutality escalated; we saw the executions of two young men, Mohsen Shekari, and Majidreza Rahnavard, following unsound trials. On Saturday, we heard of the executions of Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini. More young people are on death row and protesters have gathered outside the prisons where they are held, in an attempt to save their lives. I am sure that the whole House stands unequivocally against the death penalty in all cases. It is fundamentally wrong for any state to take a person’s life, regardless of their crime, but it is even more horrendous in this case. The death penalty is being used to intimidate and suppress the people’s legitimate anger against their Government. Indeed, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has called the executions “state sanctioned killings” and has lambasted the regime for “weaponising the death penalty”.
I want us to think for a moment of Majidreza Rahnavard, who was 23 when he was killed at the hands of his own Government. His execution came just a month after he was arrested during protests in the city of Mashhad. Majidreza was killed for allegedly killing two members of the paramilitary Basij force and for wounding two others. He did not receive a fair trial and activists report that he confessed only after being tortured. Scenes from his trial, which were selectively broadcast on state TV, depict a grossly unfair show trial. Majidreza’s family did not know he was going to be executed. Photos taken in prison the day before he was killed show him and his mother smiling. His mother believed he would soon be home and that her nightmare would be over. She discovered the next morning that her son had been publicly executed and that security forces were burying his body in secret.
Mohsen Shekari was also executed by the regime. His uncle has said he was tortured into admitting attacking Basij forces, following his arrest during protests. Mohammad Mehdi Karami was a karate champion and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini was a children’s sports coach in his free time. They were young men with their lives ahead of them. They are victims of a regime intent on driving fear into the hearts of its population.
Amnesty International reports that many more young people are at risk of being executed. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) of the harrowing story of Mehdi, who is just one example among many who have faced the threat of the death penalty. Each one of them deserves a fair and just trial, but instead they are being used as pawns to terrify ordinary Iranians into giving up their demands for “Woman, Life, Freedom”.
It is more important than ever to show our unequivocal support for those who have been condemned to death by the Iranian regime. The following people are confirmed by Amnesty International to be at risk of execution, but there are likely many more: Mohammad Boroughani, Mohammad Ghobadlou, Manouchehr Mehman Navaz, Hamid Ghare Hasanlou, Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, Hossein Mohammadi, an unnamed individual in Alborz province, Saeed Shirazi, Abolfazl Mehri Hossein Hajilou, Mohsen Rezazadeh Gharegholou, Akbar Ghafari, Toomaj Salehi, Ebrahim Rigi, Amir Nasr Azadani, Saleh Mirhashemi, Saeed Yaghoubi, Farzad Farzin Tahazadeh, Farhad Tahazadeh, Karvan Shahiparvaneh, Reza Eslamdoost, Hajar Hamidi, Shahram Marouf-Moula, Sahand Nourmohammad-Zadeh, Saman Seydi Yasin and Mahan Sadrat Sedarat Madani. I have joined Amnesty International’s campaign by writing, on behalf of the Labour party, to the Iranian ambassador and the head of the Iranian judiciary, calling for an end to the use of the death penalty and for fair trials for all accused of legitimate crimes during these protests.
British-Iranian Alireza Akbari, the former deputy defence Minister of Iran, is also facing execution, on the spurious grounds that he is a spy for Britain. That is purely political and a grave human rights abuse. Mr Akbari’s family have announced that he has been moved to solitary confinement, and that they have been called to see him one last time. Iran must urgently call a halt to his execution, which shows an utter disregard for human life and dignity. I ask the Minister to give an urgent update on Mr Akbari’s situation.
Let us remember that the Iranian regime poses a threat on British soil too. The IRGC has demonstrated that it is willing to threaten the lives of journalists working in Britain. When an organisation attacks journalists’ right to write whatever they wish and when it is reported by the national security services that it is an imminent, credible threat to life, our Government must take urgent action to protect those whose lives are threatened. We have heard that the Government intend to proscribe the IRGC—I think every Member in this debate has called for that—so I ask the Minister to confirm whether that will happen and, if so, when.
The British Iranian diaspora has bravely mobilised to support the demonstrations. They also face risk, so I ask the Minister what assessment he has made of the threat to the Iranian diaspora, who are speaking up for the rights of their brothers and sisters in Iran. The Iranian regime also has its proxies operating in the UK in the form of Islamic cultural centres with charitable status, which are under the direct influence of Ayatollah Khamenei. These centres have expressed hostility towards the protesters and those supporting them. Organisations that I have met, such as the Voice of Iran, have told me of their deep concern about the role of these centres in undermining the protests in the UK. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are aware of those complaints and whether they will be carrying out an investigation into the activities of those cultural centres? What measures will the Government take if those running the centres are found to be acting with malice against the Iranian diaspora supporting the protests in Iran?
The final tenet of the motion is about sanctions. We welcome the actions of the Government in sanctioning those closest to the regime who have financial assets in the UK, but this seems to be having no effect on the Iranian regime, which seems intent on using violence and executions as it tries to crush the protests. A co-ordinated international approach to sanctions is needed for sanctions to be fully effective, so I ask the Minister what discussions the Government have had with their international counterparts to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure can be applied through the use of sanctions.
While ordinary Iranians struggle against oppression in their fight for freedom, the sons and daughters of the hard-line clerics and the IRGC, known in Farsi as the “aghazadeh” or the “noble born”, are enjoying the freedoms that we in the UK enjoy and take for granted. I ask the Minister whether the Government will set up a taskforce to identify those who are funded by the regime and take action against them.
The courage and bravery of the protesters in Iran, who are fighting for the freedoms that we in the UK enjoy today, is a beacon of hope against tyranny and oppression. We need to show not only that we are on their side, but that we will take actions against the Iranian regime to stop it killing and torturing its own people, so that one day ordinary Iranian people will be free.
Colleagues will know that this portfolio lies with the noble Lord Ahmad, but, with him being in the other place, I am very pleased to stand at the Dispatch Box today to answer this very important debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate, and I will seek to answer his questions. He spoke movingly of the plight and the outrageous murder of Mahsa Amini, which initiated the remarkable protests. He gave us some flavour of the scale and importance of the protests, for which we are very grateful. He asked some very direct and relevant questions about a possible proscription of the IRGC. I will come to that in a moment, and we note the calls of many other Members in that regard.
My hon. Friend spoke at great length and very interestingly about the malign activity across the region of the IRGC and Iran, especially in Lebanon and Syria, and now in Russia, with the supply of the Shahed drones, which are currently destroying Ukrainian infrastructure. He also pointed out that Iran has conducted the second highest number of executions globally after China, which is a sobering fact and reflects the cruel nature of the regime.
I wish to speak about the plight of the individual facing execution. Many Members have spoken about Mr Alireza Akbari and it is right that I seek to update the House. We have no news today. We are in touch with the family. Following the scheduling of his forthcoming execution by the Iranian regime, the Foreign Secretary did release a statement and the noble Lord Ahmad called in the Iranian chargé d’affaires to issue a very strong call for clemency and for the release of Mr Akbari. As I have said, we continue to offer support to the family. We have no news today, and it would be wrong of me to speculate on any future activities, but it is right to say that, through our ambassador in Tehran, we of course continue to make extremely strong calls for his release.
On the issue of proscription, the IRGC is, of course, sanctioned as an organisation and its individual members are sanctioned under our current legislation, but it is not proscribed as a terrorist organisation. It would be wrong of me to speculate from the Dispatch Box about the outcome of the Government’s current consideration of this issue, which is active, and it would be wrong of me to pre-empt any formal announcement or judgment by the Government. However, I can say that the calls from right across the House and the unity with which those calls have been made will be noted by the Government. This is something that we regard as extremely serious, and the Government will make the judgment as they see fit.
Many of us have been round this block before with the artificial distinction between the military and non-military wings of Hezbollah. Eventually, the Government had to give way, which was the sensible thing to do. Can the Minister not cut to the chase and follow the United States, which has already proscribed the IRGC, and actually deal with this appalling organisation, which is a threat not only to its own citizens, but to stability in the middle east and in wider north Africa as well?
We note the approach of the United States, and that will be taken into consideration when the Government form their view and make an announcement.
Let me turn to the contributions of other colleagues. I was very pleased that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) spoke eloquently of the plight of women protesters under the banner of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”. She spoke movingly of her constituent’s cousin. Although I cannot comment on that specific case, I am sure that the noble Lord Ahmad would be very pleased to meet her and her constituent to see what action can be taken. I think the House was moved by her reflections on that young man.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, illustrated very comprehensively the state-sponsored nature of the brutal misogyny and violence that protesters are suffering. She asked a specific question about the guards at Evin. I cannot comment on possible future sanctions, but, following her remarks, the Department will certainly look at whether any more ground should be covered with regard to specific individuals.
My hon. Friend spoke about a number of cases involving the death penalty. She pointed out that these were cynical uses of the death penalty by the regime and that those who are currently held are effectively political hostages held for political effect. She asked about the utility and the progress of our ambassador in Tehran, Simon Shercliff. There is utility in having him there, because he is able to deliver strong messages into the heart of the regime, and he is doing his best to deliver those messages. She spoke interestingly and expertly about the regional contacts, especially in Iraq and Syria. I can give her an assurance—speaking of the view of her Committee—that our Department believes that, absolutely, the middle east does still matter.
One severe activity in the region that I failed to mention during my speech was the heinous attacks by Iran on the people of Kurdistan within the Kurdistan Regional Government. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, I would be very grateful if the Minister would consider meeting the representative of Kurdistan to discuss this matter. Only a few weeks ago, we saw missiles fly in and murder innocent people. That is severely concerning, given that the Kurds continue to hold in their camps Daesh terrorists who would come and hurt the UK. The Kurds were our foremost allies against that terrorist group at the time and should not now be forgotten.
I am sure that the noble Lord Ahmad will give that matter consideration, as this is his portfolio.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) spoke about the plight of prisoners in Evin jail and those under the banner of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”. However, I must correct her on one thing: there is absolutely no way that the UK is supplying riot equipment to the state of Iran. There may have been some suggestion —fake or not—that British equipment was used. Perhaps it was pre-1979 or perhaps it was fake, but I can give her an absolute and forthright assurance that we do not supply the Iranian regime with riot equipment or, indeed, any other equipment.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) spoke interestingly on Iran’s role as an exporter of terror. He made an eloquent call in support of the people of Iran and a strong argument for proscription, which I note.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) added his support to the voices calling for proscription, for which I am grateful. He also spoke interestingly about the impact of the Iranian supply of drones, with which I certainly agree. Drones were also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who helpfully put Iran’s activity into a regional context, expressly with regard to the Gulf. I say to my hon. Friend that we should be proud of our forthright stance in the Gulf, especially when it comes to the excellent activities of our Royal Navy minesweepers operating out of our naval base in Bahrain, which, I am sure, is something everyone in this House would celebrate and thank the Navy for. My hon. Friend also made a strong call for IRGC proscription, which is noted.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke of the bravery of protesters and made some very thoughtful remarks about what leverage we have. She is no longer in her place, but she did ask a relevant question about our leverage. It is the case that—[Interruption.] Oh, she is there. The hon. Lady has moved, but she is still present. Hers was a good question. Of course, we have huge leverage. The fact that Iran has a crippled economy and is a pariah state is due to the activities of the regime, and Iran really does feel that. The possibility of it being welcomed back with an expanded economy and normalised relations is indeed huge leverage, so we must be confident in our ability to effect an outcome for the good of the Iranian people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) spoke about refugees in her constituency. She also had some interesting reflections in a cultural context from her aunt in Persia, which showed the difference between pre-1979 conditions and now. She made a strong call for proscription, which is duly noted, as did the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). We were grateful for his reflections on the labour system in Iran.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) called strongly for the release of prisoners and mentioned the appalling and very moving case of the young judo champion, Mehdi Karami. We are grateful to her for putting that on the record, as it illustrates the cruelty being carried out in Iran.
The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) reflected on the bravery of the protesters and the scale of the protests, which I thought was an interesting angle, as well as the abhorrent use of the death penalty, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for summarising the sheer determination and bravery of the protesters, with which I agree, and for his description of the lack of religious freedom in Iran. His comments as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief were welcome.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), spoke of some of the heroines of the protest who have suffered appalling treatment and murder at the hands of the regime, which I found moving. I reiterate his remarks that they are not alone. I think this debate serves as an opportunity to reiterate that point.
I was grateful to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for joining in the condemnation of the use of the death penalty in Iran. He movingly read out the names of those facing execution, which was a sobering reality check. He raised an interesting question about the safety of the diaspora. Of course, we take all these issues extremely seriously. We continue to monitor and take seriously the activities of cultural centres and anything else in that regard. With regard to sanctions, we strive to exert maximum pressure on anyone associated with the regime through our sanctions regime.
Could the Minister shed light on the technicality of us as Members of Parliament sponsoring people on death row in Iran? I am confused about the technicalities—maybe some guidance could be issued to us. I am also happy to write to him on the tear gas point.
The Department will write to the hon. Lady on the question of sponsorship and whether or not it is a useful path. I cannot answer that now, I do not know, but we will write.
In conclusion, Iran must abide by the international rules and it must be held to account for its destabilising activity in the region and around the world. The UK will continue to work relentlessly with our international partners to ensure that that happens. We do not know what the political future of Iran looks like; of course, that must be for the people of Iran to decide. However, it is clear that the current leaders have got things very badly wrong. By recklessly blaming everyone but themselves for the anger and unrest, they are destroying their legitimacy—what legitimacy they have left—in the eyes of their own people and the world. We should be clear that there is, of course, a place in the international community for a responsible Iran—one that respects the rights and freedoms of its people. However, for the sake of Iran’s prosperity, security and its future standing in the world, we urge the regime to listen to our calls to release its political prisoners and end these outrageous, deeply deplorable and cruel executions.
With the leave of the House, I would like to thank the 13 Back Benchers and three Front Benchers who have contributed to this excellent debate. Often, this House is at its best when it speaks together in a united fashion. It is fair to say that today we have had a very united debate, which has sent a strong signal. We may think that it does not matter, but I can tell Members that this debate has been livestreamed into Iran to the brave resistance there. It will give them courage and add to their determination to overcome this theocratic regime.
While we understand that the Minister cannot respond immediately to the clarion calls made by virtually every Member for the IRGC to be proscribed in its entirety, I trust that this House will pass the motion in my name, which will then be the settled view of the House and send a strong message to the Government to carry out that work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) raised the Iranian diplomat who was rightly imprisoned for his part in the terror plot to attack us in 2018. There is a suggestion that the Belgian authorities are being leaned on for a prisoner exchange that would return him to Iran. I would like us to send a strong message to the brave people of Belgium not to allow that diplomat to be returned because, if he is returned, it will be as a hero and we cannot have that.
Finally, our thoughts and prayers must go to all those on death row in Iran—for their release, for them to no longer be held in detention and for them not to be executed. We have no argument with the people of Iran. Our argument is against the regime, which must step back and allow freedom and democracy to flourish.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House condemns unreservedly the actions of the Government of Iran in suppressing protests in that country; deplores the violent behaviour of Iranian police in regard to those protests; is deeply concerned by reports of threats made to organisations in the UK which support the rights of protesters in Iran; urges His Majesty’s Government to include Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations; and calls upon His Majesty’s Government to work with international counterparts to ensure that further sanctions are placed on Iran without delay.